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Sep 02nd
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Denial and the demonic

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On its face, this portion is Leviticus at its most inaccessible. Ugly lesions and discolorations appear on a person’s body. The victim turns to the priest. Based on the criteria laid down in last week’s portion, the priest knows whether this disfigurement is a sign of disease, requiring medical treatment, or a sign of ritual impurity. If the latter, the priest banishes the victim from all contact with society.

Depending on various changes in the victim’s physical condition, he remains in enforced isolation for up to two weeks. Then he goes through a mortifying purification ritual. Finally, he is is readmitted to society.

What can this possibly mean?

We have here a graphic picture of the powerful grip of denial. Only a psychological framework brings coherence to the extremes of cosmetic chaos, social stigma, and ritual mortification. Only hammer blows to the body and the spirit alike elicit that most simple and most difficult of human responses, the opposite of denial: self-knowledge. I see myself. I erred. Disfigurement and isolation — lesions, discoloration, ostracism — plague this portion’s primary actor, the victim of all this physical and spiritual pain, the metzora.

For centuries, the metzora was commonly translated “the leper” and his ostracism was conceived to be medical quarantine. Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch notices that by conventional wisdom and translation, the symptoms of the metzora and the conditions of the leper do not jibe.

For example, upon evidence of true leprosy, a leper is medically quarantined to prevent contagion, but Leviticus’ metzora, with the spread of symptoms over his entire body, is freed from isolation; and with the healing of certain symptoms, is subjected to isolation (13:12-14). Clearly, the enforced isolation of the metzora is not due to contagion.

Rabbi Hirsch devotes several pages to a detailed analysis of the differences between leprosy and the Levitical debility.

The metzora, therefore, is not a leper. The physical symptoms of the metzora result from a spiritual disease, not a physical one. The metzora is bodily punished for sins of the soul; his enforced solitude is a spiritual solution to sin and its markings.

In a phrase: the metzora’s disease is punishment. With this, the inaccessibility of Leviticus reaches its climax. Even those who regard disease as a punishment from G-d for a spiritual failing do not generally link a specific disease to a specific failing. But Leviticus asserts a one-on-one linkage. The metzora has a specific disease, which is G-d’s punishment for his specific failing.

What can this possibly mean?

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