SOCIAL QUARANTINE – Tazria – Lev. 12-13 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Torah readings this week and next week rank among the least attractive passages in all the Five Books. Of course if your field is medical history, you might find them fascinating. For most of us, however, details about how to identify symptoms of leprosy don’t inspire us. Our rabbis, with blessed ingenuity, did manage to discover a significant symbolism here, even in an otherwise repugnant subject.
An individual who suffers from leprosy is called in Hebrew metzora, a leper. And this week’s reading, in Lev.13:45, mandates a procedure the leper must go through. He must tear his clothes, as if in mourning, let his hair go wild, cover his upper lip (which the Talmud in tractate Moed Katan explains as having his cloth hood hang down to his mouth) and call out the words ta-MEY ta-MEY (Contaminated, contaminated!) warning others to stay away. As long as the infection continues, he must pitch his tent outside the camp. The net effect of all these requirements constitutes an ancient form of quarantine. Recognizing a possibility of contagion, the Torah mandates a method to minimize the plague.
But what causes someone to become a metzora? Rabbinical interpreters take the word apart, and find offensive behavior: metzo ra = motzi shem ra – literally, bringing out a bad name. In other words, slander. Gossip leads to slander. The slanderer becomes a moral leper, whether or not he is a physical leper. Maimonides, being both a physician and a commentator, points out that this quarantine not only places the leper outside the camp to protect healthy people, but mandates that he must live alone, thus separating him from other lepers – or other gossips. With no one to talk to, he cannot spread slander. Gossip dies. Infection is cured.
We don’t know how well that system worked in Torah times. But couldn’t we use it now?