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Jewish learning Sensing and Making Sense

By Jessica Spencer

Parashat Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

Our bodies, with their many sensations, their flaws and flows, are hard to understand. They form both our public selves and our most private parts. Parashat Tazria-Metzora offers us two different models of how to make sense of our bodies. What can we learn from the Torah of skin diseases and discharges? What can we intuit?

In Leviticus 13, we encounter graphic descriptions of skin markings:

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל־אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר׃
אָדָם כִּי־יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ־סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת וְהָיָה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת וְהוּבָא אֶל־אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן אוֹ אֶל־אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים׃…

God spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When a person has on the skin of the body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of the body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests… —Leviticus 13:1-2

God instructs Aaron and Moses in great detail about skin disease: different categories of skin disease, diagnosis criteria in terms of color and size, and details of the examinations that the priest should make. The priest has a central role in arbitrating the process of skin disease, and there is a set of objective criteria and policies to assist him.

In chapter 15, we turn from the subject of external markings to a decidedly internal issue:

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל־אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר׃
דַּבְּרוּ אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַאֲמַרְתֶּם אֲלֵהֶם אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי יִהְיֶה זָב מִבְּשָׂרוֹ זוֹבוֹ טָמֵא הוּא׃…

God spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When any man has a discharge issuing from his flesh, he is impure… — Leviticus 15:1-2

In contrast to Leviticus 13, in this discussion of genital discharge the priest is almost absent. Instead, God asks Aaron and Moses to talk to the whole people of Israel, not only the priests. The chapter follows a chiastic (or mirror) structure:

A (verses 1-15): Man with an abnormal discharge
B (16-18): Man with a normal discharge
B’ (19-24) : Woman with a normal discharge
A’ (25-30): Woman with an abnormal discharge

This structure calls attention to the categories of normality and abnormality. Although the clear divisions here might imply that it is easy to distinguish between normal and abnormal, the reality of our messy bodies suggests otherwise. How do we distinguish between the normal and the strange? Unlike in the previous section, there are no helpful color markers or size guides, no expert to adjudicate our bodies for us. It is left to the individual in the perhaps-unpleasant—maybe even scary—situation of having an unexpected discharge, to decide for themself whether or not it is normal. Dr. Chaya Halberstam notes:

“Israelites are instructed to recognize genital discharge and their own status as ritually impure, while priests are commanded to analyze skin lesions and decide whether others are ritually impure.”¹

While for the skin lesion there was a process of analysis to decide what category applies, the discharge is “recognized” by the lay-person without any external information. We must rely on our senses about our bodies alone.

Our parashah, then, shows us two different models of knowledge. For the external mark on one’s skin, there needs to be an objective decision-making process performed by a public authority. But for the private, intimate experience of a discharge, nobody else can help. The person must understand their body by intuition alone. Sometimes we need independent facts, and sometimes we need intuition. Each model is necessary in a different situation.

But are these models so separate? On a closer look, the private and public are more muddled than they first appeared. The instructions for the public, priestly rituals of the skin lesion are given only to Moses and Aaron, and are not shared with the people. The knowledge is kept private amongst the priests. Meanwhile, the instructions around discharges from one’s private parts are proclaimed publicly to the entire community. The text creates authoritative experts through restricting knowledge to a select group of people who will develop their experience. It creates intuitive private experience by a public announcement of information. In both cases, we need elements of public and private, knowledge and intuition.

For those who have a strange discharge, they count the days alone, and then immerse in water. Then they are ready for a communal ritual:

וְאִֽם־טָהֲרָה מִזּוֹבָהּ וְסָפְרָה לָּהּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים וְאַחַר תִּטְהָר׃
וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי תִּֽקַּֽח־לָהּ שְׁתֵּי תֹרִים אוֹ שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי יוֹנָה וְהֵבִיאָה אוֹתָם אֶל־הַכֹּהֵן אֶל־פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד׃
וְעָשָׂה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת־הָאֶחָד חַטָּאת וְאֶת־הָאֶחָד עֹלָה וְכִפֶּר עָלֶיהָ הַכֹּהֵן לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה מִזּוֹב טֻמְאָתָהּ׃

When she becomes purified of her discharge, she shall count off seven days, and after that she shall be pure. On the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, and bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The priest shall offer the one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering; and the priest shall make expiation on her behalf, for her impure discharge, before God. —Leviticus 15:28-30

After undergoing the isolating experience of ritual impurity alone, without any help from priestly authority, finally the zavah (woman with a discharge) comes to the center of communal life, the Tent of Meeting. There she meets the priest and brings him two birds as a sacrifice. The priest atones for her publicly, at the altar at the heart of Jewish religious experience, before God. No matter how private the situation, understanding our own bodies takes both knowledge and intuition. We need to learn, and to rely on community, while not forgetting to trust ourselves.

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  1.  Chaya T. Halberstam, Law and Truth in Biblical and Rabbinic Literature, 21

Jessica is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College and also learns with Rabbi Daniel Landes at the Yashrut Institute. When not learning, she swims, reads, and muses on the best recipe for hot chocolate. She is a co-founder of Azara, a new cross-communal British yeshiva opening Jewish texts to everyone.

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