The double parasha Tazria-Metzorah details the laws of tumah, any impurity that would require people to maintain their distance from the Mishkan. The primary focus is on the metzorah, a person afflicted with the skin disease tzara’at, and how he is to become pure. The parasha continues with cases of tzara’at that occur on garments and on a house before turning the focus back to people and their impurities: the zav, literally the “flow,” a man with an unusual penile emission; a man who had a seminal emission; the niddah, the woman who has menstruated; and the zavah, the woman who has had an irregular flow of blood.
The common denominator of all of these tumaot is that they develop from within the person; they are not contracted from the outside. Whether the condition is a skin disease or some type of flow, the source is in the person. Although less intense than the tumah of touching a corpse, the tumah of these parshiyot is more severe in one important way: it directly defines personal status. Such a person may not enter into to the Levite camp, or, after the wilderness period, the Temple Mount. A person with corpse-impurity, by contrast, can go up onto the Temple Mount.
Tumah that comes from the outside, even if very intense, does not define the identity of the person to whom it transferred. We do not have a proper noun for a person who has touched a corpse; he is described only in terms of what he has done. In contrast, Tazria-Metzorah is filled with a cast of characters – the Metzorah, the Zav, the Niddah, the Zavah – defined by their status. Hence, they must keep their distance from the Temple, where the primary concern is to keep tamei things, and more specifically tamei people, out.
We often define a person’s very self by more readily identifiable traits. This can help us organize our reality, but it can also lead to generalization and discrimination. My children have special needs, but these don’t define them. I do not want them to go through life as “he is Asperger’s” or even “he is autistic.” These are conditions they have not adjectives and certainly not proper nouns. I want no one to forget – especially them – that, first and foremost, they are special, unique, wonderful people who are so much more than any particular condition they may have. When people meet one of my sons, they have to see them for who they are; if all they see is a label, they are not really seeing them at all.
As we might expect, a closer reading of this week’s parasha reveals that the Torah does not label people by their conditions. Take, for example, the man with an irregular flow. He is referred to as ha-zav. This could be translated as a proper noun: “the Flow-er,” or “the Emitter.” However, this approach is almost universally eschewed; most translators have understood that the word zav, as it is used here, is not meant as a name but a descriptor. The proper translation is, “the man who has a flow.” This is his condition, not who he is.
This is true for everyone in our parasha. There is the man asher teizei mimenu shikhvat zera, “who has experienced a seminal emission”; the woman who is bi’nidattah, “experiencing her flow”; and the woman who is “in her [irregular] flow” (Vayikra, 15:16, 20, 26-28). These are people in certain states, not people defined by their state. Because the tumah occurs to them directly they own their tumah more, and they are more distanced from the Mikdash, but this does not and should not define their identity.
There is one exception to this rule. Although the person with the skin disease is mostly described just that simply, the Torah does, in one place, give him a proper name. At the beginning of Parashat Metzorah he is called the metzorah, a title used in very much the same sense as “the leper.” This may be because, unlike the others, this condition is long-lasting, severe, potentially recurrent, and visible to all. It is thus more likely that a person may wind up being defined by it. This is often what happens with those who have cancer. Consider the following blog post:
I had migraines for 25 years. Bad ones, that left me quaking in agony in a darkened room, moving only to vomit. Those migraines changed my life more than cancer did… Yet, I don’t consider them a part of my identity.
Not so with cancer. I have migraines, I am a cancer patient.
I suppose the [intensity of the] treatment can help explain it… We can’t keep it a secret, like those with high blood pressure can. We don’t get to face our disease in private: we lose our hair and are thus outed as cancer patients. If we leave the house, we tell the world.
It’s also true that the fact that the disease can come back and strike at any time is part of the reason it never fully leaves your psyche.
Notice how many of the characteristics of living with cancer parallel those of tzara’at: intensive treatment, the public nature (hair growing wild in one case, baldness in the other), the potential for recurrence. These traits can conspire to turn the disease into identity.
I believe, however, that even here the Torah pushes back against this sort of labeling. It is ironic that the label metzorah does not appear when the person is diagnosed with the condition, when he is ostracized from the camp, or when he practices the public signs announcing his state. It is only assigned when he begins the process of purification: “This shall be the law of the metzorah on the day that he becomes pure…” (Vayikra, 14:2). It seems that the Torah is acknowledging that this state can become an identity and advising that it only be recognized as such in retrospect, once the condition can no longer outwardly identify who they are. In fact, one study has shown that people who self-identify as a “cancer survivor” are more likely to have “better psychological well-being and post-traumatic growth,” this in spite of the same study’s finding that “neither identifying as a ‘patient’ nor a ‘person with cancer’ was related to well-being.”
It would seem that after having lived through such a traumatic condition, it is healthier to see one’s current state as a significant break from one’s past state. If one ‘had cancer’ and now simply ‘does not have cancer,’ if there is significant continuity of identity from the period of disease to after, it may be harder to fully own one’s new, healthy state. Perhaps the Torah is telling the person with tzara’at, resist letting this terrible disease define you when you have it. But when you are putting it behind you, then you can say that before you were a metzorah, and now you are no longer.
Just as they may be helpful when the condition is a thing of the past, labels for people can serve a useful function in legal texts. Halakhaand the rabbinic literature does in fact assign labels to people with these conditions: a woman with a flow, for example, is a niddah, a menstruant. Legal systems may need a convenient way of categorizing and grouping, but when dealing with real people with current conditions, labeling will always remain dangerous, reductionist, and dehumanizing.
While the Torah focuses on how certain people can become tahor, how they can change their current state, we must acknowledge that there are people with lifelong conditions. These people can only talk about managing their condition, not treating it and certainly not curing it. We cannot further trap them in their condition by labeling them and identifying them with it. It is our responsibility as a society to ensure that, whomever the person and whatever their condition, we will always see him or her as he or she fully is, that we see the inherent purity that is each person’s essence.