Parashat Tazria deals with people and things that are tamei, usually translated as ‘unclean’. But tamei is not ‘unclean’ in the sense of dirty, or disgusting. Throughout the Torah the word refers to a purely ritual state, not a physical one. As Everett Fox puts it in his translation of the Five Books of Moses, ‘It is not … “uncleanness” in the physical sense, but a state akin to radioactivity: in this case, it drives away the divine presence from Israel. … Were I in a flippant mood brought on by political correctness, I might suggest “ritually challenged” [as a translation] for tamei.’
Scholars place the priestly obsession with tumah (the noun form of tamei, meaning ritual impurity), and indeed the whole book of Leviticus, in the context of one of the greatest revolutions in human history: the establishment of monotheism, the recognition that there is only one God.
Mary Douglas, the great anthropologist, drew out the implications in Leviticus as Literature. By establishing that there is only one God who has any power, you deny the efficacy of all the other powers to which people have turned, and continue to turn. Think of what that meant to a people accustomed to worshipping multifarious beings. There is no problem for them when they think about the things they want. Anxious worshippers who want good things can turn to the one God instead of to Baal or Mammon. But what about the bad things? How do you explain and deal with bad things when there is only one God and you can’t blame demons?
That is where Leviticus comes in. As Mary Douglas put it, ‘Leviticus separated the theory of impurity from belief in demons, and classified impurity as a form of lèse majesté, an attack on God’s honour as the covenanted lord of the people of Israel. This simple move, expressed in rules for controlling ritual contagion, teaches the people not to blame non-existent demons for misfortunes.’
When bad things happen, we are not to look for demons to blame or to appease. We are to find out what is wrong, and just deal with it. The priest examines the tzaraat disease, diagnoses it, tests the diagnosis and applies the cure. This is not a medical lesson; it is a spiritual one. Central to the whole of Leviticus is the act of making distinctions, between clean and unclean, kosher and traif, pure and impure. Everett Fox sees Leviticus as what he calls ‘the Book of Separations’, and refers to its ‘near obsession with drawing lines (or, as Mary Douglas has it, concentric circles).’
Leviticus has a parallel in the story of creation in Genesis. Here distinctions and ordering are also at the heart of the text. As soon as God has created light, God ‘separates’ the light from the darkness. God separates night and day, the waters from the earth, and then creates the heavenly bodies, the plants and the animals, ‘each according to its kind’ – a phrase that also constantly recurs in Leviticus.
We must learn to take responsibility for our own lives, learn that we ourselves are to make distinctions, as God did, between healthy and unhealthy, right and wrong, good and evil. As God says in Deuteronomy, ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse – choose life!’
Robert Stone, an historian and political economist, is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti and Finchley Reform Synagogues.