This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, is largely concerned with the condition of “tza’ra’at,” a skin condition similar in appearance to leprosy. When someone contracted this condition, he went to the Kohen, the priest, for an inspection, and if the Kohen confirmed that the person was in fact afflicted with tza’ra’at, the person was forced to leave the camp, to live outside the camp in a sort of quarantine.
In her talk this morning, Jenna talked about how teenagers put other teens “outside the camp.” For the “affliction” of being different, whether it’s dressing differently than other kids or coming from a different background than other kids. Jenna talked about how the isolation of “being outside the camp” can have very negative consequences for the people who are put outside.
The Torah gives us clear guidelines about who should be put outside the camp, and who makes the decision. The Kohen, made the decision. There were clear criteria to be used…the effort was made to be inclusive, not exclusive; doubtful cases were monitored, and remained in the camp until it was certain that the person had the affliction.
The rabbis understood tza’ra’at not as a physical affliction, but as a spiritual affliction. The priest was not acting as a physician making a disease diagnosis and providing healing, but rather he was acting as a “spiritual doctor,” looking for physical signs of what was understood to be a contagious spiritual affliction…the root cause of the problem was in the spirit, not in the body.
When the “spiritual expert,” the Kohen, determined that a particular affliction was tza’ra’at, the person afflicted was commanded to leave the camp. In later times, and in theory even today, Jews have had another way to put people “outside the camp”—“cherem,” or excommunication. Excommunication in Jewish law is not a black and white, you’re in or out, type of punishment. Excommunication is actually highly nuanced—people could be “put outside the camp” by the rabbis for various periods of time, sometimes as little as a few days, or a month, or in extreme cases permanently. A person who realized he did something wrong, or acted disrespectfully toward his teacher could put himself under the ban, put himself outside the camp, as a form of penance.
Putting aside the question of who should get to decide who is in and who is out, this idea of putting people outside the camp merits some consideration. Are there people today who SHOULD be put outside the camp, because they have a “spiritual affliction” or should we be “all-inclusive?” If there are people who SHOULD be put outside the camp, who are they? There are no simple answers to this question. Each community should be free to set their own standards as to what constitutes such an offense that the person should be expelled. For example, a woman who was in an abusive relationship, and got a divorce, might feel very uncomfortable, even physically threatened, being around her ex-husband. She might feel that if the community fails to pro-actively expel her ex for what he did, they are by default putting her, the innocent victim, outside the camp because she may feel uncomfortable coming back into camp.
With people who are danger to the community, whether abusers, drug dealers, or thieves, it is easy to say that they don’t have a place in a typical community. Other cases may be more difficult. There was an article in Jewish papers in LA last year about a Jew who is active in his community who makes his living as a producer of pornographic films. Clearly a career that is in opposition to a great many Jewish values. It should be up to an individual community to decide whether they want someone like that participating prominently in their community.
The formal mechanism of “cherem,” excommunication, is very rarely used in the Jewish world today. However, we certainly do continue to put people “outside the camp.” All too often we each take on the role of the priest ourselves, deciding that someone has a tza’ra’at worthy of being sent out. Even worse, we often do this unconsciously. We don’t make a conscious decision that someone has done something so bad that he or she deserves to be put outside the camp. Rather, we do it inadvertently; someone has an “affliction” of some sort, and we avoid their company—putting them outside the camp just as effectively as if the priest had looked at them and declared “impure, impure!”
Teens put others outside the camp for being different. What do we adults put people outside the camp for? Who do we put in isolation?
Sick people are often put outside the camp, unconnected to their community, especially if they have a disease like AIDS, or even cancer, diseases that make others feel uncomfortable. The elderly are often isolated, living alone, frequently lacking transportation or money to get around.
The disabled, and not only the disabled themselves, but families with “special needs children” are often left to feel isolated. Sometimes physically when an institution is not easily accessible to those with handicaps, sometimes just emotionally when they are not invited to social events.
Intermarried couples are often not fully welcomed in to the community because some people are very judgmental about other people’s lives.
Anyone who has been through a divorce can testify that it can be a very isolating experience. People who were friends with the couple sometimes don’t want to seem to “take sides,” or feel they no longer have much in common with someone who is single. Or sometimes one spouse gets the support of the community, and the other is left out in the cold.
Gays and lesbians often find that the only “camp” they can be welcome is a small camp of other gays and lesbians.
People who are suddenly facing a financial downturn often find themselves being put “outside the camp.” In the words of the 1929 blues song by Jimmy Cox…made famous by Janis Joplin and Eric Clapton:
“In your pocket there ain’t one penny
It’s as for friends you don’t have any
When you finally get yourself up on your feet again
Everybody wants to be your long lost friend
It’s mighty strange but there ain’t no doubt
Nobody loves you when you’re down and out”
Why is it that we fail to put outside the camp those who deserve it, and we DO put outside the camp those who don’t?
I suggest we act this way because it is the “easy way.” We don’t exclude people because they deserve it due to a spiritual or moral failing: we put people outside the camp who make us uncomfortable. If life has been hard on someone and has afflicted them, we don’t know what to say, so we avoid them entirely…putting them outside the camp.
Our tradition tells us not to do this accidentally. In a case of doubt, the priest would keep the person within the camp, not send them out. More than that, some of those people we isolate—those who are sick, or grieving the loss of a loved one—our tradition tells us that in fact we must reach out to them. It is mitzvah to visit the sick and to comfort the mourners. We should remember that failing to reach out to people in need, is putting them outside the camp without thinking. We put someone outside the camp when we stop inviting them to join us for a meal. We’ve put someone outside the camp if we don’t offer help in a time of need. If we don’t make sure someone KNOWS he or she is a part of the community we have effectively put them outside the camp.
In our dealings with one another, may we remember the lesson of this week’s parsha: that putting someone outside the camp is a serious business that should only be done carefully, intentionally, and when there is no doubt. Let us not inadvertently put people outside the camp who most need our loving and welcoming presence within the camp.