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D’VAR TORAH BY: RICHARD N. LEVY

What Happens in the Body Stays in the Body – A Guide for When it Doesn’t

The first chapter of this double portion, chapter 12 of Leviticus, is perplexing. It seems to stand by itself. Its topic, the condition of a woman who has given birth, does not seem to relate to last week’s portion, dealing with permitted and prohibited foodstuffs, and it does not seem to relate to the chapters that follow it, which speak about that peculiar skin eruption called tzaraat. But by placing it as a kind of preface to the chapters on skin eruptions, the Rabbis who arranged the Torah portions seem to be arguing that it does relate to irruptions: it speaks about a natural eruption through the skin—the birth of a baby, compared to an “unnatural,” or at least undesired, eruption: the oozing out of fluids. Tzaraat is a substance that is supposed to remain inside the body; it is “unnatural” when it flows out. A baby, on the other hand, is supposed to emerge from the body when its time is ripe. This is a portion, in other words, about boundaries, as Mary Douglas argued long ago in her book Purity and Danger.1 Thus, while Rabbis often dread having to preach about this portion, it is a very suggestive one, and presents, as Professor Douglas has taught us, an image of the human body as symbolic of the body politic of the Israelite people.

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