Lepers, Jews and Prostitutes

Lepers, Jews, and prostitutes had a lot in common in Medieval Europe. They were all reviled. All were forced to wear distinctive clothing. Imagine the plight of a leprous Jewish prostitute! Some things change with time. Today, leprosy is curable with antibiotics. A major motion picture featured Julia Roberts as a prostitute. But prejudice against Jews thrives.

In Parshat Tazria, we learn about people afflicted with skin disease. The common lore is that Tazria describes leprosy. That is a misnomer. In fact, the Bible does not describe Hansen’s disease, commonly called leprosy or tzaar’at in Hebrew. Nonetheless, skin afflictions must have been common and alarming.

The treatment for tzaar’at, the skin disease, was to place the afflicted person outside of the camp. After a week, the Hebrew priests, serving in a medical role, would carefully reexamine the skin. If cleared, the person bathed and reentered the camp.

As a disease, leprosy persisted for millennia. Moreover, the nature of the disease remained misunderstood. In medieval times, Catholic priests would ostracize lepers, banning them from participating in religious activities and society. So too, were Jews excluded – sometimes forced to wear distinctive clothing, banned from owning land, or mandated to live in ghettos. Their isolation defied biblical principles.

The Torah’s approach to tzaar’at considers the humanity of the ill person. In Torah we find a methodology to restore them to society. By contrast, a society that groups lepers, Jews, and prostitutes as outsiders is a failing model of civilization.

Whether they are judging people by their skin or by their faith, the world is plagued by hateful people, filled with fear and loathing. A primal need to exclude and dominate fills some souls. While medicine can cure leprosy, the world needs an antidote for anti-semitism, racism, and xenophobia. Perhaps we should be hopeful that as anti-biotics fight disease the world will discover the love and caring to end baseless hatred.

Rabbi Evan Krame