What does one do with a biblical reading that looks like a disappointing chapter in a medieval physician’s almanac: first, the forms of blood impurity following childbirth; then the treatment, diagnosis, and transmission of skin disease (usually translated as leprosy)?
One obvious answer is to accept it as just that, but there doesn’t seem to be much gain in reading bad medicine — not just biblical but rabbinic, like Gersonides’ claim that breastmilk produced for daughters is thicker than it is for sons; or Abarbanel’s certainty that males have more heat than females so are formed more quickly. Rashbam properly despairs at how little his generation knows of such things,
So our commentators prefer a moral reading. The so-called leprosy, they say, is the quintessential punishment for lashon hara, “talking slanderously of others.” We applaud the Jewish denunciation of lashon hara — a genuine Jewish value that appears ubiquitously in the Talmud and even the prayer book. But categorizing severe illness as moral punishment is objectionable, and wrong.
The best approach is to see the biblical account as a metaphoric treatment of the human body (and by extension, its opposite, the soul) because from beginning to end,it is a disheartening description of bodily functions (and dysfunctions); and the difficulty we have in coming to terms with the most obvious thing that we are, bodies running amok and running down.
We may laugh, or even be outraged, at our ancestors’ treatment of childbirth, but remembering how little they grasped the medicine of it all, we can at least understand their reversion to expiatory sacrifice as their way of facing the troubling reality that we are genetically conditioned to have children, but only at the terrible cost of labor pain and the after-effects upon the mother’s physical condition even in cases of successful labor – not to mention the frequency of stillbirth or of babies with bodies that are painfully defective from the start.
Labor at least produces babies. Nothing good can be said about disease, pictured here with all the intimate ugliness of skin abrasions and discoloration that may spread in ever wider circles until the body threatens to be overrun by them. That’s the problem with bodies, even for us, who eat well, get regular sleep, and exercise maniacally: at best, it is all a holding action, postponing the inevitability of our bodies heading toward uselessness, and then flat-lining into death and decay.
We live in a time that practically worships the body – to an extent unseen since the days of ancient Greece. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. Of course we should practice bodily hygiene, remain fit, and avoid obesity. And equally, we should be cognizant of the damage done by former eras that saw natural bodily functions like menstruation as shameful or downright evil. But in the end, bodies are just bodies, the vessels of a larger “self” that we sense we are in our best moments. When our bodies abandon us, we still think of our “selves” as intact.
That mysteriously intact self should not be taken for granted. It is a distinctively human thing to know we have one. The self is separate even from the brain which may process thought and emotion but is nonetheless altogether bodily no less than our heart, skin, and lungs.
The brilliance of religion is its insistence on that “other” part of us, the “self” that is precious, irreplaceable, and undimmed by the ravages of time and circumstance. It is beyond scientific detection, altogether elusive, but not a mere delusion. This “self” we know we are is the most mysterious of all our certainties, a reflection of what Jews have called the soul. This soul, the Rabbis say, comes pure from God and remains intact no matter when, how, or how much our bodies turn against us.