Infection Control: Leviticus 14:33-57

The tzara’at of skin and person is distinguished from that of garments, or here of buildings, and walls, and so on. Tzara’at of your ‘self’, or of your ‘stuff’. I think of border and airport controls of screening people, and luggage, for more than disease! Imagine mold or mildew, perhaps, as the phenomena – but these texts refer to the meanings and responses, which are different than those relating to personal tzara’at or skin diseases.

The allusions to plagues, or to specific pandemic waves, are beyond the experience of generations of rabbis, but seem more familiar to those in exile and diaspora in Babylon than those in Palestine. When people go to new regions in the world, they discover new risks. Again, I recall traveling through border points at Sydney and Auckland during SARs and feeling like a bit of a leper as a Canadian flying from Toronto.

The rules of avoiding the impure place are as strict and violent as scientific quarantines and infection controls. People coming in contact with the place are themselves unclean, set apart for a time, and required to wash before reentry into community. This is not moral guilt – those helping to fix the problem are similarly ‘unclean’ due to their contact with the selves and the stuff.

Again, the priest declares the problem, and leaves people to fix the problem, then returns to declare if it is fixed, but does not presume to make it so. Scrape your walls, re-plaster – then if the priest declares that it looks over, a ritual cleansing follows, restoring the place to ritual purity.

The ritual is similar to the one for personal return, with two birds, one slaughtered over water, the bloody water sprayed with cedar and hyssop on the newly plastered walls and on the second bird, released beyond the pale.

Glib liberals have another blind spot in our blithe assumptions of positive law jurisprudence, flowing from our blind faith in the nation state. We are knee-jerk deriders of ‘natural law’ traditions where human regulation is acknowledged as approximate recognition of something given by divine ultimate authority. The modesty of Leviticus is wise: the priest recognizes and declares, and does not claim to effect the transformation of stuff from unclean to clean.

I’ve been in trouble before for affirming room for rabbinic authority, sharia law, or ecclesiastical courts, usually in terms of ritual recognition of birth, marriage, divorce, or death. Those traditions are not limited to the self, but also to stuff. Matrimonial law has changed and zig-zagged in Ontario in my adult lifetime, as we learned the relationships that religious regulatory tradition already knew.

Glib liberals assume the sovereignty of our nation state to create law, and assume congruence of our nation state’s law with ‘international law’ as named by relatively new international institutions of a global liberal multilateralism. Fights about free trade or fair trade, about human rights and international law, tread along this boundary or liminal region of tzara’at of selves and stuff.

Can a trans-national corporation resist domestic regulation of labour conditions, workplace safety, product liability standards, pollution controls? Can a current regime regulate a minority in its midst which is a majority in a neighbouring nation state? These are not simply ‘ethnic’ or ‘religious’ issues, to be adjudicated by some superior objective secular liberal perspective!

Welcome to the worldview of Leviticus! If the problem persists, the house is taken apart, stone by stone, and the rubble dumped beyond the pale, better wrecked than impure and making people in our community impure. Now, reread Jesus’ threats in Luke that as for a corrupt temple, not one stone will be left upon another…

33 The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:

34 When you come into the land of Canaan, which I give you for a possession, and I put a leprous disease in a house in the land of your possession,

35 the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, ‘There seems to me to be some sort of disease in my house.’

36 The priest shall command that they empty the house before the priest goes to examine the disease, or all that is in the house will become unclean; and afterwards the priest shall go in to inspect the house.

 37 He shall examine the disease; if the disease is in the walls of the house with greenish or reddish spots, and if it appears to be deeper than the surface,

38 the priest shall go outside to the door of the house and shut up the house for seven days. 

39 The priest shall come again on the seventh day and make an inspection; if the disease has spread in the walls of the house, 

40 the priest shall command that the stones in which the disease appears be taken out and thrown into an unclean place outside the city.

41 He shall have the inside of the house scraped thoroughly, and the plaster that is scraped off shall be dumped in an unclean place outside the city.

 42 They shall take other stones and put them in the place of those stones, and take other plaster and plaster the house.

43 If the disease breaks out again in the house, after he has taken out the stones and scraped the house and plastered it,

 44 the priest shall go and make inspection; if the disease has spread in the house, it is a spreading leprous disease in the house; it is unclean.

 45 He shall have the house torn down, its stones and timber and all the plaster of the house, and taken outside the city to an unclean place.

 46 All who enter the house while it is shut up shall be unclean until the evening; 

47 and all who sleep in the house shall wash their clothes; and all who eat in the house shall wash their clothes.

48 If the priest comes and makes an inspection, and the disease has not spread in the house after the house was plastered, the priest shall pronounce the house clean; the disease is healed. 

49 For the cleansing of the house he shall take two birds, with cedar wood and crimson yarn and hyssop,

 50 and shall slaughter one of the birds over fresh water in an earthen vessel,

 51 and shall take the cedar wood and the hyssop and the crimson yarn, along with the living bird, and dip them in the blood of the slaughtered bird and the fresh water, and sprinkle the house seven times.

52 Thus he shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird, and with the fresh water, and with the living bird, and with the cedar wood and hyssop and crimson yarn; 

53 and he shall let the living bird go out of the city into the open field; so he shall make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean.

54 This is the ritual for any leprous disease: for an itch, 

55 for leprous diseases in clothing and houses,

 56 and for a swelling or an eruption or a spot, 

57 to determine when it is unclean and when it is clean. This is the ritual for leprous diseases.