Parshat Tazria-Metzora

Parshat Tazria-Metzora
When I reach the difficult sections of the Torah, I feel more comfortable when I understand it as metaphor or allegory. Our very strange lives, during the spring of 2020, have led me to question what makes me comfortable in many different ways. I’ve had a hard time understanding the Pharaoh’s “hardened heart,” and yet when I see current political figures vacillate between rationality and magical thinking, the Pharaoh’s behavior seems stunningly familiar.
The parshiot on tazria and metzora — the weird skin disease and its sufferers in Leviticus — has always been challenging for me. Besides the “yuck” factor, the text seemed primitive and belonging to a pre-scientific era. The best I could do with it was to see it as a metaphor for dealing with spiritual distress. The priest provides a structured way to heal a disordered person and then reintegrate them into society.
And here we are. Now we face a disease that challenges our science and technology, threatening mass death, and the oddities in Leviticus don’t seem out-of-place. We are cautioned to look for subtle symptoms like the loss of taste and smell. We should guard ourselves against the air and beware of contamination on clothing, furniture, and surfaces on our buildings. The mix of disease, uncleanliness, death, and the need to dwell apart are all here.
So what do we do with it? The priest, who in the early sections of Leviticus performs spectacles in a place of holiness, is also expected to serve the sick. Somehow being occupied with holiness also means attending to the unclean, providing order and meaning to disorder. Isolation and separation are part of a process that includes reintegration. Let’s figure it out together.
Vayikra 13:3-4 (Robert Alter trans.)
And the priest shall see the affliction on the skin of the body, and if the hair in the affliction has turned white and the affliction seems deeper than the skin of his body, it is skin blanch. When the priest sees it, he shall declare him unclean. 
Robert Alter
When the priest sees it, he shall declare him unclean: The examining priest determines the diagnosis, and perhaps one should think of him as performing at least one function of a physician. But these regulations for skin conditions reflect an ambiguous conception of disease that wavers between pathology and ritual impurity (the general sense of tam’e, “unclean”). Thus the quarantining of the afflicted person might involve a fear of contagion in the medical sense or might be chiefly an avoidance of ritual contamination, and one suspects that the two were blurred in the Israelite imagination. Jacob Milgrom proposes that the wasting of the flesh involved in tasara’at is associated with death, and that these laws are an expression of the impulse in Leviticus to separate all deathlike phenomena from the living.
Vayikra 13:45-46 (Robert Alter trans.)
The priest shall surely declare him unclean. His affliction is on his head. And the person afflicted with skin blanch, in whom the affliction is, his clothes shall be torn and his hair disheveled, and his mustache he shall cover, and he shall call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” All the days that the affliction is on him he shall remain unclean. He is unclean. He shall dwell apart. Outside the camp his dwelling place shall be. 
Robert Alter
his mustache he shall cover: This rather odd expression seems to indicate that the afflicted person is to pull some sort of scarf or head covering around his mouth — according to Abraham ibn Ezra, so that he will bring no harm to others from his contaminating breath.  The law may stipulate mustache rather than mouth to mark the line up to which the covering is to be pulled. The tearing of the garment and the disheveled hair are ordinarily signs of mourning, but here their evident function is to set aside the afflicted person from the healthy …
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