Bible says what! ‘Lepers must be welcomed back to the community’

Bible says what! ‘Lepers must be welcomed back to the community’

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith takes a controversial passage from the Torah and applies a progressive Jewish response

This shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed. 

The Torah portions Tazria and Metzora in the middle of the Book of Leviticus are not popular among those who have a choice over when their bar or batmitzvah might take place. They are full of law about personal purification, including for a person with a potentially contagious skin condition which, in Torah, is called tzraat, normally translated as leprosy. Why would you want to read this out to a congregation, especially in celebration of your becoming an adult?

What makes these chapters so critical to our reading of Torah is not so much the diseases and conditions that they describe, but what happens to a person after the disease seems to have gone away.

Leviticus chapter 14 describes an elaborate and very public ritual of reintegrating the person into the community, which could not live with them while the disease raged.

During a time when contagious conditions could not be treated, the person with leprosy was isolated.

However, when the disease had gone, it was the job of the most prominent person in the community, the priest, the Cohen, to work with them to bring them back into Israelite society as an equal participant.

This was done by the priest helping the ex-leper with a number of rituals requiring close contact,
public sacrifices and public declarations that this person is to be welcomed back.

These portions are a challenge to examine who we place “out of bounds” in our society, because they are perceived as some kind of threat.

When we hear them, we are
challenged to be like the priests,
accepting the responsibility to go out and see these people, examine and understand their experience and look for some way to bring them back in.

Mark Goldsmith is rabbi of Alyth Synagogue

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