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Parshiyot Tazria-Metzorah 5783

April 17, 2023

Click here for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

A D’var Torah for Parshiyot Tazria-Metzorah
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

Reading Parshiyot Tazria-Metzorah this year I can’t help but think about bodily autonomy and the conversations taking place across the United States about the legality of abortion and related procedures. The Torah establishes a system in which those in power, the priests, are tasked with looking at a part of a person’s body to dictate their ritual status. Based upon their determination, the person may be socially isolated and required to shave portions of their body. The voyeurism coupled with a religiously-imposed obligation to do something with, or to, one’s body, grates against modern notions of personal autonomy.

And yet, at the same time, I realize that I actually do subscribe to certain bodily limitations and restrictions imposed by governing powers. להבדיל,[1] I endorse vaccination requirements for people to enter certain spaces. Even beyond Covid-19, I expect public schools to mandate certain inoculations against diseases for students in order to ensure the safety of all attending children. I also support age restrictions on the purchase and use of certain substances, as well as requirements to be able to see in order to drive, and other laws that regulate bodily autonomy in different ways. There are of course crucial distinctions between abortion and the other issues I noted that should not be ignored. However, reading the parshiyot this week evokes all of these areas for me as I think about the ways in which society regulates our bodies and in which a simple rejection of any governmental responsibility for imposing corporeal-based requirements can actually be dangerous.

Given that some amount of body-oriented requirements feel necessary for societies to function and to protect their citizens, what insights can I glean from the Torah when it comes to thinking about restricting bodily autonomy? In reading through Tazria-Metzorah again this year, three key ideas stand out for me.

First, in the case of a נגע that infects a house, the priest is required to “order the house cleared” before entering “so that nothing in the house may become impure” (Lev. 14:36). If food and objects were in the house when it is declared impure, they would need to be destroyed or purified. The obligation to remove everything in the house before assessing its status reflects concern for the owner’s possessions. From this, we can learn that the administration of impositions on personal autonomy must be considered and conducted with compassion for the person, their possessions, and their livelihood.

Second, the biblical purification process involves sacrifices – whether of birds, lambs, and/or flour. Any restrictions on personal autonomy necessarily entail certain sacrifices. While the sacrifices involved today are unlikely to be of a similar nature to those of the Bible, we cannot lose sight of the sacrifices that must be made by individuals who are subject to limitations on their autonomy in order to exist in community. These personal sacrifices should not overlooked nor marginalized by the community at large and by those in power deciding upon, or implementing, laws.

Finally, the Torah speaks about those who come into contact with a person in a state of impurity (or objects they touched) becoming impure themselves through this contact. For me this reminds us that even when a limitation on bodily autonomy is oriented towards a particular group of people or certain contexts, the impact of the restrictions is always further reaching and extends beyond those immediately involved.

We are living in a time when questions about bodily autonomy are very much on some of our minds. Regardless of the particular issue, I hope that the lessons of compassion, sacrifice, and broader impact that the Torah teaches can guide us in our conversations and decision-making.

[1] I use the word להבדיל in the colloquial sense of recognizing that the topics being compared are significantly different and wanting to highlight important distinctions even as I draw a comparison.

Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation.