This week’s Parshah, Tazria-Metzora, deals with all kinds of ritual impurity, including the skin disease, tzara’at, usually translated as leprosy. An afflicted individual is to be placed outside the Israelites’ camp until the disease is gone. This disease is almost certainly not the disease that is properly known as Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Hansen’s disease is a bacterial infection for which, prior to the discovery of antibiotics, there was no cure. A leper could not have been healed. Whether the disease described here is leprosy or not, based on this text, those suffering from Hansen’s disease were placed in leper colonies away from society for centuries.
One such colony was on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai.
In the late 19th century, two Catholic missionaries, Father Damien de Veuster and Mother Marianne Cope arrived on Molokai to tend to the patients. What they found was a desperately sick population. Not desperately sick with leprosy, but desperately sick with other things, primarily TB, due to complete lack of care and inadequate shelter and nutrition. Father Damien and Mother Marianne built adequate shelter and brought medical care to Molokai, and the death rate plummeted.
Father Damien and Mother Marianne did not cure leprosy. That did not happen until after WW II with the advent of antibiotics. What they did was to restore the basic humanity of the inmates on Molokai, treating them not as some subhuman entities but as people in need of help. In so doing, they alleviated great suffering.
Tazria-Metzora teaches us not just to put an afflicted person outside the camp, but also to check on them. We are not commanded to forget them and move on; quite the contrary.
Yet how often do we forget the suffering of those who live outside our camp? It is a human tendency to ignore if not demonize the other; we, as Jews, are obligated to fight that tendency.
This is why Women of Reform Judaism has fought for those who have little or no voice since our founding in 1913. Our earliest resolutions dealt with immigration and we still stand with immigrants and refugees today, including Dreamers, as we have done since our inception.
In Israel, there are those who strongly consider women as the “other.” Through WRJ’s YES fund we offer financial assistance to Women of the Wall, and to the Israel Religious Action Center, which fights not only for gender equality in Israel, but also for the rights of other under-represented groups as well, such as immigrants and foreign workers.
Here in North America, we fight for women’s equality. Sadly women today are still treated as the “other.” We fight for pay equity, paid family leave, and reproductive justice and against sexual harassment and assault. The YES fund supports a legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center as our “boots on the ground” in Washington, DC.
We also work to make women less of the other in the STEM fields (Science, technology, engineering and Math) by providing incentive grants to bring more girls to URJ Six points Sci-tech academy, both East and West. Sometimes, being the other is a matter of life and death, sometimes it is merely a matter of equal rights and equal opportunity. Both are important.
Tazria-Metzora teaches us that even those “outside our camp” are still human, still worthy of our notice and our care. As Jews we should be especially careful of how we treat the “other,” because all too often we have been the “other” and suffered accordingly. Women of Reform Judaism has always been and will continue to be the voice of those who have no voice, and we will never stand idly by when someone suffers as we ourselves have suffered. We will not rest until no one anywhere is the “other.”
Abigail Fisher is the WRJ vice president for development and special projects. She is a member of Beth El Temple Ceneter Sisterhood in Belmont, MA. She also serves on the camp committee for 6 Points Science and Tech Academy.