Whom Do We Send Outside the Camp? Israel Past & Future (Leviticus 12-15)

Whom Do We Send Outside the Camp? Israel Past & Future (Leviticus 12-15)
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Whom Do We Send Outside the Camp? Israel Past & Future (Leviticus 12-15)
by Dr. Arthur Green

The weekly Torah portions called Tazari’a and Metsora’ (Leviticus 12-15) are the classic bane of Jewish preachers’ lives.  They feature ancient rules about the treatment of skin diseases, defining what were obviously medical practices as matters of ritual purity and defilement. 

The priest here takes the role of medical practitioner, looking at various sores and lesions, declaring some “impure” (presumably infectious), and others “pure” (not having reached the dangerous stage or being past it).

Leviticus essentially creates a primitive quarantine system.  The idea is that the “camp” of Israel – the tribes still wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt – is to be kept pure.  Those whose lesions are open and running, according to the priest’s inspection standards, are to be kept outside the camp for a period of seven days, when they are to be inspected again. “All the days the affliction is upon him, he shall be held impure; he is impure.  He shall dwell alone, outside the camp (Leviticus 13:46).”

It is likely, we should recall, that these rules of conduct for the life of the Israelite tribes wandering through the desert were probably written down about a thousand years later than the purported events they describe.  At that point Israel was indeed wandering again – living through the aftermath of its Babylonian exile – and trying to define itself as a holy community, one with clear boundaries to its camp, keeping all “infection” and “filth” outside.  The community was first learning how to maintain its integrity without its onetime natural borders.  The image of its ancestors’ holy camp, also wandering about outside the Holy Land, must have seemed inspiring and definitional.

It is not hard to see how concerns for health, morality, and rectitude, as defined by priestly and later rabbinic elites, all came together, forming the protective boundaries of the sacred community.  To do that, of course, we needed recourse to the existence of a realm called “outside the camp,” the place where all who didn’t fit could be sent, some until ready for further examination, but others forever.

Who are those we send “outside the camp?”  In the various Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox communities, the standards are quite clear and severe.  Anyone who breaks with the norms of traditional Jewish law, or who openly expresses doubt in divine providence or the Torah’s authority, is to be shunned.  This still takes place in the old-fashioned way, including mourning as though for the dead.  The Hasidim are not unlike the Amish; closed communities of the religious elect, for whose members’ excommunication can be a devastating punishment.

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"For the rest of us, the ground is shifting..."

April 24th, 2012 09:21 am

I rarely disagree with Rabbi Green, but this time his characterization of who is outside the camp is wrong in the face of history. Beinart places himself outside the camp of core Jewish values of protecting life and return to Zion. Beinart wants to impose liberal democratic American values on Israel. The two aren't always compatible, nor should they be as Judaism isn't a democracy but rather a religion. Israel is a Jewish state with democratic values. Most Jews in America stand in support. We need Israel to be the world's Jewish state, not so much another nation crafted in the notion of Peter Beinart's vision of an elysian garden.

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