Pure and whole or murky and accepting – do we strive to be distinctive or inclusive?

By Student Rabbi Dusty Klass

Earlier this year, while reading up on parashat Tazria-Metzora, I found a curious passage regarding tzara’at. In the midst of an explanation of how the kohanim are to determine whether a rash is tzara’at or not, and thus whether the person who has tzara’at is impure or not, we find this statement:

“If the infection has spread over the skin so that the infection covers all the skin from head to toe, then the kohen shall check it out and he shall pronounce the person clean. He [the infected] has turned completely white; he is clean.” (Lev. 13:12-13)

In other words, a person who is completely covered by this weird skin disease is considered ritually pure.

It seems counterintuitive that someone dressed head to toe in lesions should be considered clean, but in fact it is indicative of a very Jewish appreciation of whole-ness.

We are all about tikkun olam, about righting wrongs and collecting broken shards of God’s light. We are all about creating a day when “God will be one and his name will be one” (Zech. 14:9, and the finale of our prayer Aleinu L’shabeach). In Torah we find that the unblemished animals are prized over all others for sacrificial purposes, and that two-toned fur is considered an aberration.

On the one hand, there is something beautiful about uniformity, about a clean white surface. But on the other hand, there is something dangerous about that uniformity. For if we believe that purity is found solely in sameness and similarity, we lose out on the multi-faceted nature and health of heterogeneity.

While working with Bay Area Mitzvah Corps this summer, I had the pleasure of learning from my teen participants, one of whom was downright against decision-making. Whenever we asked a question that required her to take sides and thus to deem something wrong, or at least outside of the circle, she refused to make the distinction. Her understanding of inclusion forbade her from barring anyone from anything.

This, I feel, is also dangerous. Without distinction, things become murky, unclear. Human beings live on words, and words require definitive meanings.

So which do we strive for? A wholeness that distinguishes but in the end excludes or an openness that includes but in the end removes all distinguishing features?

Reform Judaism, I think, purports itself to be both distinct and also inclusive. We strive for wholeness, for completeness, for a world full to the brim with peace and justice and mercy and kindness. But at the same time, we work to make our communities as inclusive as possible, to invite and welcome those who may not be perceived as “whole”, or “complete” by others.

And perhaps this is what we are taught through Leviticus 13:13 – that though a person may be completely covered, from head to toe, in scaly skin infections, that person is yet a whole person and may be considered as such.

Dusty Klass is a 3rd year rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She hails from Seattle WA and currently serves as the student rabbi at Temple B’nai Israel in Amarillo TX.