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Purity and the Pope

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2005-04-08

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

The Bible devotes several chapters to what is normally translated as ‘leprosy’. Apart from finding it an unexciting read, I have often wondered what its significance was and how could you have ‘leprous’ houses and clothes.

In primitive societies diseases figure largely within a religious context. It was to the witch doctor or shaman or priest that you would go for a cure. Cures were not logical or scientific but linked to ritual and ceremony. They reinforced the power and control of the priests and magicians. We see hints of this ‘unholy’ alliance in the Bible, in the roles of the soothsayers, dream interpreters and magicians used by the nations around Israel, such as Egypt, Midian and Moab. And, of course, it is still with us in the most sophisticated of societies, where superstition, luck and miracle workers abound--sometimes in the guise of ‘rabbi’, too.

Many commentators have raised doubts as to whether the Hebrew word TSARAAT really should be translated as ‘leprosy’ altogether. Perhaps it is just a general term for contagious diseases and, in the context of Leviticus Chapters 13-15, is lumped together with a series of unusual liquid secretions from the human body.

In effect there are two issues here--disease and displacement--and they are interconnected. Disease takes a person out of his or her normal state. Often after a period of recuperation they are welcomed back into the community. States are not necessarily permanent and while one may need to be isolated for a while either to recover or to prevent the contagion from spreading, no state lasts forever and no person should be excluded permanently. It is only death that marks a final transition, from a temporary state to a permanent one. (And that is not necessarily bad--it is simply another world, not this one.)

Similarly, our bodily juices all play an important part in our biological lives, but they have their place and use. Blood is essential. But forcing it out of the body through violence, or drinking it, are misuses. Our reproductive liquids too have their appropriate and inappropriate uses. And if any type of bodily fluid starts oozing out of control it is a sign that something is wrong internally. There is a correlation between the internal and the external in terms of body as well as community.

The crucial common denominator is that there is nothing intrinsically bad or evil or impure about the human body. But there are periods when we need to be aware of what is happening to our bodies, to mark those times, respect them and take time to recuperate. This is precisely why they are given ritual terminology to indicate their connection with a spiritual outlook on life and a holistic approach.

This is why ‘leprosy’ is associated later on with Miriam and gossip (Numbers 12). Miriam said some inappropriate things about Moses. A negative mental state can impact on the body. A body in its unnatural state needs to be removed from the community. It is in a state of ‘temporary’ death, but in this situation it can recover.

So that all these cases of ritual purity Leviticus has been discussing are really simply marks of transition but not intrinsic impurity. In the pagan, magic world when one puts oneself in the hands of the witch doctor one has no advance idea of what might happen or how far one might have to go. These Leviticus laws do, indeed, give the priest a role, but a limited role. The consequences, the agenda and the commitments are all laid out explicitly.

The lesson that I derive from it all is that we can do a lot to cure ourselves, provided we recognize that curing a physical state requires mental and spiritual activity (or purification) as well. The highest form of purification is the reconciliation of humanity to its Divine or pristine state. This means valuing human life and recognizing the phases and changes it goes through.

And this--the definition of human life--is where religions and society often part company. For some reason some Christians take the definition of life to an excessive degree, to the point where instead of supporting life, they end up, indirectly helping its destruction. And on the other hand many western societies tend to the other extreme of treating human life as disposable.

Perhaps it is this that leads some religious leaders to go too far the other way.

We have in our tradition the notion of a Chassid Shoteh, a Pious Fool. I mean no disrespect when I say that too many saintly people of all religions fall into this category. (The rigid attitude of the Beth Din in London to conversion is another good example of a valid idea being taken to degrees of absurdity.)

As a child I read with admiration about the multi-talented, great Nobel Prize winner, Albert Schweitzer, who abandoned a life of fame and wealth in Europe to dedicate himself to the poor in Africa. He set up a hospital for lepers at Lambarene in Equatorial Africa . He was an idealistic Christian missionary, as well as a highly educated, enlightened man and a world-class organist. He died in 1965.

His more recent equivalent was Mother Theresa in India, who was all but worshipped, for her similar devotion to the poor and sick. So was Pope John Paul  2nd ; likewise, a wonderful person trying his best to help mankind.  Yet in my opinion they, unlike Schweitzer, were mentally constricted by inappropriate dogma, rather like the witch doctors and shamans they hoped to displace.

Both Mother Theresa and the Pope believed that contraception is the same as murder! This prevented them, and many like them around the world, from helping to mitigate the circumstances of the poor they were dedicated to serving. The late Pope was quick to condemn the war in Iraq, but was responsible for not helping to prevent many millions more deaths through AIDS. The refusal of the Catholic Church in Africa to encourage contraception in the context of the massive plague of AIDS is a crime against humanity, decimating families, communities and tribes because of a religious dogma that, frankly, I find both incomprehensible and dangerous. There are many laws in Judaism that might be considered incomprehensible and illogical, but when it comes to saving life virtually all are set aside.

I did admire a great deal about Pope John Paul, including his continuing the great work initiated by John 23rd of rethinking the primitive attitudes of much of the Church toward the Jews. He was undoubtedly a caring man and a major politician. But he perpetuated quite ruthlessly the conservative myopia to which dogmatic religion all too often falls prey.

This is why I so value Maimonides’ principle that religion requires us to have a Golden Mean, a balance between extremes. Middle-of-the-road has its advantages!!