Is this really science? That is the question I ask when reading the passages fromTazria and Metzora abouttzaraat. On the surface (literally) it appears to be a type of science--a mix of pathology and forensics, with the priests serving as researchers examining skin, hair, fabrics and building materials. Discolorations of certain types, depths, concentrations and duration are examined for the diagnosis of pure or impure. If these procedures are the equivalent of what we would call science, then the criteria are objective, and so too is the outcome-the Kohen is just describing that which he has carefully observed. Think of a pathologist examining a biopsy -- either the tissue is cancerous or it is not. The declaration does not affect the reality, only the response to reality.
Yet, there are hints in these texts and in their rabbinic interpretation that the physical symptoms are not determinative of the person’s status. Rather, it is the Kohen’s declaration that makes a person or an impure, and it is the Kohen’sdeclaration plus the purification ritual that changes his or her status back to that of pure. In verse 14:36 we see: “The Kohen shall instruct them to empty the house before the Kohen enters to examine the affliction lest he declare all that is in the house to be impure. After [they have emptied the contents] theKohen will enter to examine the house.” The rabbis view this as “proof” that God “worries about the money of Israel” since any ceramic vessels in the house would have to be destroyed if present when the house is declared to be afflicted. But, if tzaraat is an objective condition that is communicable, then one would want to quarantine the house with all of its contents before the inspection, no matter what the expense!
The Talmud Moed Katan (7a-b) brings out a discussion of whether a Kohen may inspect a person with tzaraat on festivals. Rabbi Meir says that he may “for leniency” but not “for stringency.” That is, a person who had been quarantined in order to determine if he or she has tzaraat may be examined if healed so that the Kohen can announce the person to be pure and able to then enjoy the festival with its offerings. But, if his or her condition has deteriorated, the Kohen should not examine the person lest he have to declare the victim impure and thus ruin the joy of the festival. One sage teaches, “The matter depends on the Kohen-if he sees that the person is pure, then he declares them pure. If he sees that the person is impure, then [the Kohen] is silent.” Once again you see that the ritual is responsive to the social reality, and that it is the act if interpretation, not the “objective” reality, that is determinative.
We are entering a season in which our religious practice takes on a “scientific” garb-we will be boiling and scrubbing, purging and purifying, all to make our kitchens “kosher for Pesach”. The physical reality does matter-I really want my food to be kasher l’pesach and to avoid eating or owning any chametz. Yet, if a fork that I boiled was somehow stuck to another fork and shielded from the water and therefore did not get to the proper temperature and therefore wasn’t really koshered for Pesach, would I be guilty of eating with chametzutensils, or would we say that the procedure was ritually effective even without a physically perfect execution?
In other words, are these rituals powerful because they feel powerful, or are they powerful in some sort of objective way? The premise of an “objective” reality has come under attack in science, not only in quantum mechanics but also in most areas of inquiry. The observer often affects the experiment and certainly chooses which data to select for analysis. We must have rigorous protocols, but we must also realize that in the end, it is not the objective reality alone which determines whether a home is pure or impure and whether a utensil is kosher or not. Following the rituals induces a state of mind which enhances our experience of the holy-this in the end is the Torah of Metzora, and it is the same Torah which makes Shabbat a day unlike all others.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham