What does one do with a parsha that reads like a chapter in a medieval physician’s almanac: first, the forms of blood impurity following childbirth, then the treatment, diagnosis, and transmission of skin disease (usually translated as leprosy)?
One obvious answer is to accept it as just that, but there doesn’t seem to be much gain in reading bad medicine, not just biblical but rabbinic — like Gersonides’s claim that breastmilk produced for daughters is thicker than for sons, or Abarbanel’s certainty that males have more heat than females and so are formed more quickly.
So our commentators prefer a moral reading. The so-called leprosy, they say, is the quintessential punishment for lashon hara, “talking slanderously of others.” We applaud the denunciation of lashon hara — a genuine Jewish value that appears ubiquitously in the Talmud. But categorizing severe illness as moral punishment is objectionable, and wrong.
The best approach is to see the biblical account as a metaphoric treatment of the human body (and, by extension, the soul) because from beginning to end, the parsha is a disheartening description of bodily functions (and dysfunctions) and the difficulty we have in coming to terms with the most obvious thing we are: bodies running amok and running down.
We may laugh, or be outraged, at our ancestors’ treatment of childbirth, but we can at least understand their reversion to expiatory sacrifice as their way of facing the troubling reality that we are genetically conditioned to have children, but at the terrible cost of labor pain and the after-effects upon the mother’s physical condition — not to mention the frequency of stillbirth or babies with bodies that are painfully defective.
Labor at least produces babies. Nothing good can be said about disease, pictured here with all the ugliness of skin abrasions and discoloration. That’s the problem with bodies, even for us who eat well, get regular sleep, and exercise maniacally: at best, it is all a holding action, postponing the inevitability of our bodies’ heading toward uselessness and into death and decay.
We live in a time that practically worships the body — to an extent unseen since ancient Greece. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. Of course we should practice hygiene, remain fit, and avoid obesity. And we should be cognizant of the damage done by former eras that saw natural bodily functions like menstruation as shameful or evil. But in the end, bodies are just bodies, the vessels of a larger “self” that we sense we are in our best moments. When our bodies abandon us, we still think of our “selves” as intact.
That mysteriously intact self should not be taken for granted. The self is separate even from the brain, which may process thought and emotion but is no less bodily than our heart, skin, and lungs.
The brilliance of religion is its insistence on the “self” that is precious, irreplaceable, and undimmed by the ravages of time and circumstance. It is beyond scientific detection, altogether elusive, but not a mere delusion. This “self” is a reflection of what Jews have called the soul, which, the rabbis say, comes pure from God and remains intact no matter when, how, or how much our bodies turn against us.