The Bible Says What? ‘Only the bald are pure’
Leviticus 13:40 contains my favourite verse: “If a man loses the hair of his head and becomes bald, he is pure.” My photograph shows that I am extremely pure. This strange verse comes in a part of the Torah that seems to link skin disease with divine punishment.
As a hospital chaplain, I was called to the bedside of a Chasid with an infected arm. He said: “Tell me what sin I have committed that is making
God punish me.” We became friends, but I could not comprehend a cruel God who would use disease as punishment. He could not understand
a Jew who didn’t see disease as punishment.
On festivals, we chant the Torah verse: “God merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness.” The verse end, which tells how the sins of parents are visited upon children, is omitted because we seek out the compassionate side of God. Ours is not a God who punishes with disease.
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However, does Leviticus suggest that my Chasidic friend’s view of a punitive God is correct? My bald verse occurs in a section interpreting a leprous condition called tzara’at. Clothes could suffer from tzara’at (mildew?), as could houses (rising damp?). Tzara’at was evidence that a person or an object had been touched by ritual impurity. The Israelites felt that sometimes God used skin ailments as punishment, just as God sometimes used frogs, locusts, darkness and hailstones. But we cannot extrapolate from this that illness must be understood as punishment. Sometimes a frog is just a frog.
The Talmud interprets tzara’at as punishment for slander. Claiming disease as punishment from God is to slander the ill. Rather we should treat the ill like God, with compassionate and abounding kindness.
- Roderick Young is a freelance rabbi living in Norfolk