Parashat Metzora

Embracing the Marginalized
A Dvar Torah for Parashat Metzora
By Len Levin
“This shall be the ritual for a leper on the day that he is to be purified.” (Leviticus 14:2)
“Once leprosy had gone, and the figure of the leper was no more than a distant memory, these structures [the medieval European leprosaria or lazar-houses] still remained. The game of exclusion would be played again, often in these same places, in an oddly similar fashion two or three centuries later. The role of the leper was to be played by the poor and by the vagrant, by prisoners and by the ‘alienated’ [i.e., the insane], and the sort of salvation at stake for both parties in this game of exclusion is the matter of this study.” ― Michel FoucaultHistory of Madness

We are social beings. As such, we create hierarchies. Even the simplest society, such as the family, has its hierarchy. The rules of purity and impurity in Leviticus play a part in the hierarchy of ancient Israelite society. The leper, permanently impure, is at the bottom of this hierarchy. We also are creatures of value, “knowing good and evil.” Purity and impurity are central value concepts in the priestly code. To the extent possible, we avoid the impure and strive for the pure.
Marginalizing or excluding is an extreme move in the setting of hierarchical boundaries. We rank and marginalize on the basis of both moral and non-moral criteria. The victims of marginalization come in many varieties–the contagiously ill, the physically handicapped, the disfigured, the mentally disabled or deviant, as well as the criminals, the foreigners, the political dissidents, practitioners of a deviant lifestyle, etc.
The rabbis sought to draw a correlation between the leper and the sinner, i.e., between the physically marginalized and the morally culpable. They resorted to a play on words: the word metzora (leper) suggests motzi shem ra (one who slanders another). They cited in support of this view the story of Miriam, who in Numbers Chapter 12 spoke disparagingly of Moses’s Cushite wife and was punished with a temporary bout of leprosy. One could pursue this connection further, at least symbolically. Slandering is itself a form of marginalizing; the slanderer has the goal of ostracizing the victim. If leprosy were indeed retributive justice for slander, as the rabbis imagined, then one who sought to marginalize another would end up being marginalized in turn. The rabbis called such retribution midda keneged midda — measure for measure.
But there is another teaching of Judaism, that all human beings are created in the image of God. If we take this teaching to heart, we should seek to minimize hierarchical distinctions, and welcome the marginalized into the community. Our Torah portion outlines a procedure where the person cured of his or her leprosy becomes purified, and once purified, regains all privileges of social acceptance.
The haftarah goes even further, and tells a story where the marginalized provide the occasion of salvation for the entire community. Precisely because the four lepers were situated outside the walls of the besieged city of Samaria, literally in no-man’s land, they were able to gain access to the enemy camp and discover that the enemy had fled, then convey this news to the Israelites behind the city walls. The people at the bottom of the hierarchy became the instrument of salvation for all; they became the heroes of the story.
Jews, too, have played a paradoxical role in Western history. In the Judeo-Christian narrative, they were the original chosen people, and thus supremely important. From a medieval Christian perspective, they forfeited their role and became a pariah people. But in modern Western culture, their marginality turned into an asset, and they were able to make creative contributions to general thought and society far disproportionately to their numbers.
Simeon ben Azzai said, “Do not disdain any person, nor underrate the importance of anything, for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.” (Avot 4:3) And my daughter Rachel comments: “Are there people in our immediate circles or broader communities that we regard or see as modern day lepers who may deserve better, or more understanding? I think we probably all have certain people in our worlds that we write off who don’t really deserve it, or whom we don’t understand and so we don’t give them the respect they deserve.”
Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.