In this week’s parsha, Tazria, we are quickly confronted with laws and procedures dealing with tzara’at. The initial verse regarding this phenomenon is as follows:
אָדָם כִּי־יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ־סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת וְהָיָה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת וְהוּבָא אֶל־אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן אוֹ אֶל־אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים
If a man has a se’eith, a sappachath, or a bahereth on the skin of his flesh, and it forms a lesion of tzara’at on the skin of his flesh, he shall be brought to Aaron the Kohen Gadol, or to one of his sons, the kohanim (Leviticus 13:2).
The Torah then goes on to spend the better half of two different parshiot discussing tzara’at: what it looks like, the exact procedure required to deal with tzara’at and finally what to do once a person has ridden himself of tzara’at. However, as we get to the end of this section in the Torah were are still left with one major problem. There is no explanation in the Torah — nor is there even an attempt at an explanation — as to the cause or nature of tzara’at!
The Talmud, in tractate Arachin, along with multiple other Midrashim, famously connects tzara’at with a number of sins centered on the theme of speaking badly about others. Upon analyzing any Talmudic or Midrashic attempt at explaining a phenomenon in the Torah, it is crucial to try and find the scriptural text or texts to support their assertion. With the case of tzara’at there are many hints in the Torah as to the cause of tzara’at including:
- Moshe’s hand being struck with tzara’at after speaking badly about the Israelites during the episode of the burning bush (Exodus 4:6).
- Miriam being struck by tzara’at when she spoke badly about Moshe (Numbers 12:10).
- The name of someone stricken by tzara’at, a “Metzorah,” sounds like it is made up of the words motzi shem rah or “one who slanders.”
As a result of the Biblical stories and rabbinic interpretation, tzara’at is subsequently viewed by the majority of Jewish exegetes as a divinely-ordained punishment for sin. In their view, God, who controls all of nature, inflicts a sinner with tzara’at, and heals them once they have repented.
One may think that the story ends here — after all, our analysis above seems like the most reasonable conclusion to make from the Torah. However, within the more “rational” camp of Rishonim, we actually see them try to argue for a much more scientific and natural explanation of tzara’at. Many of our great sages such as Rambam, Ibn Ezra, Ralbag, Ibn Caspi and many others tried seeing the world in a much more rationalistic manner — while still trying to hold true to the “truth” of the Torah. In many different areas we encounter people in this camp fundamentally disagreeing with their “non-rationalistic” counterparts on a myriad of issues.
Perspectives Through The Ages
Before giving my commentary, I want to lay out some of the more “rational” opinions surrounding tzara’at. Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim famously writes that tzara’at is a contagious disease:
מצורף אל היות הצרעת מתדבקת וכל בני אדם מואסים אותה ובדלים ממנה וכמעט שהוא בטבע
(Guide for the Perplexed 3:47)
Furthermore, leprosy is contagious, and all people flee from it; this is virtually in their nature.
Even if the onset or the timing of this disease is supernatural, once a person is diagnosed with tzara’at, he must be careful not to get other people “sick.” Ralbag, in his commentary on Leviticus, takes this idea a bit further and attempts to explain tzara’at via the scientific and medical knowledge existing in his day. He writes that when moisture enters an object, it causes the object to first display certain signs (tzara’at) and then eventually that object disintegrates. Continuing along this theme, the Meshech Chochma writes that the procedure that a Metzorah must go through is a quarantine, and the only people who are able to come in contact with the Metzorah are Kohanim, who are granted special divine protection in this case. Many other commentators throughout the years have interpreted tzara’at in a similar manner.
The idea that tzara’at is a contagious disease is problematic on many different accounts. These reasons include, but are not limited to:
- A person technically does not have tzara’at until diagnosed by a Kohen, to the point where a person can never be “diagnosed” on Shabbat or a holiday.
- The Kohen only searches for tzara’at in the very visible parts of the body, excluding folds in the body (where a skin disease would be more likely to spread).
- These laws only apply to Jews, so non-Jews cannot be diagnosed with tzara’at.
- If one is fully covered with tzara’at, he actually does not have tzara’at due to a scriptural decree.
These reasons show the ultimate futility of trying to give any sort of “rational” or naturalistic explanation as to the nature of tzara’at. In the words of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, many of these arguments display the “absolute folly” of trying to “rationally” explain tzara’at.
Interpreting the Text & Tradition
This brings up an interesting question: I have no doubt that many of the aforementioned scholars had knowledge of these challenges to the “rational” explanation of tzara’at, so why did they go against the simple explanation of the verses in their explanation?
I think that the attempt of the “rationalist camp” shows the difficulty of living a life trying to balance loyalty to the Torah while at the same time valuing rationale and logic. For some individuals, simply accepting that in Biblical times there were all of these wild, supernatural, crazy miracles happening all the time is too much of a leap of faith. What reasons are there for us to assume that a few thousand years ago the nature of the world was fundamentally different then it is now?
The struggle of these Rishonim is the struggle that every one of us must go through on a daily basis. On the one hand, I refuse to give up my intellectual honesty and simply accept that everything that I am being taught is true. On the other hand, however, I find Judaism, with its vast tradition, extremely valuable and important. How exactly this dichotomy and process works will be unique for each and every person — as it should be. In trying to understand the nature of the miraculous disease tzara’at, we have uncovered a much larger, more fundamental question, of how we balance our religious tradition with our intellect.
For more articles by Daniel Levine, visit his blog at whoknowsone.wordpress.com