This past March, while participating in a Germany-Belarus interfaith trip, I learned the story of Fritz Rappolt. Though not mentally ill, Fritz had been diagnosed as psychopathic at the Bethel Hospital in Bielefeld, but was released from Bethel in September, 1940 when Jews were not allowed to be treated in medical institutions. He, as many other Jews, experienced that painful “identification” that led to isolation. In September, 1941 he was trying to obtain a visa at the Columbian consulate so that he could join his brother who was in the USA, but two months later he was deported by the Nazis to the Minsk Ghetto.
This became the third and last isolation of Fritz: first wrongly diagnosed as mentally ill, then forced to leave the Bethel hospital, and finally forced to leave Germany. While in Minsk, he was not “seen” by his father and brother, but he was heard. God knows how he managed to send a card to them from the Ghetto, but he did. And as if it was not enough, he tried to negotiate with policemen in the Ghetto to try and send more letters that he collected from other Jews in the Ghetto. His naïve plan failed, and Fritz Rappolt was arrested and shot in April 1942.
Thinking about Fritz Rappolt brought me to the deeper meaning of the isolation of those inflicted with tzaraat (leporasy). The topic of ritual impurity or ritual defilement, started in Parashat Shmini in Vayikra, and continues through this week’s chapters Tazria-Metzorah. And if in the previous chapter the list of permitted and forbidden food is presented, our chapter, while speaking about defilement, doesn’t focus only on the list of purity/impurity, but rather on the identification, the instructions and the role of the Cohen. According to the text, while the Israelite priest is not a doctor and does not cure the infliction, he does identify the plague – tzaarat in Hebrew – and supervises the isolation and purification. Moreover, in the Haftara, the Aramean Army Commander Naaman, who was cured by the prophet Elisha views the recovery as God’s miracle.
In Tazria, the Cohen is given instructions for identifying tzaarat on the skin or garments, and in Metzorah on tzaarat of the house, including isolation period and required offerings. But what happens to the person afflicted with tzaarat, the leprosy infection?
According to Leviticus 13:46, he or she should be put outside of the camp, and the isolated “leper” must call out “Impure!”, wear ragged clothes with his head and face and mouth covered. In other words, to be “heard and not seen”. Parashat Metzorah goes on about the process of purification, which includes shaving off all body hair including eyebrows, washing all the clothing, cleaning the entire body, and bringing the offerings.
By the end of Parashat Metzorah we learn that this procedure is in place in order to protect the Israelites against their impurity lest they die “through their impurity by defiling the Tabernacle”. The Talmud (Arachin 16a) states the reasons for leprosy infection as punishment for an “evil tongue”. This obviously raises more “what if” questions than answers, that have been puzzling the generations from the Medieval times of Nachmanides till the 21st century.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut z”l gives us one of the explanations of how, according to the Midrash on the book Vayikra-Sifra, the person was pronounced impure. When the Cohen was unsure about the specific status of a person’s purity, he might be guided in making the decision by a lay person. And here we see that the specific task of the Israelite priest could be shared and discussed among “non-priest” professionals and lay leaders.
For the modern reader, even with a superficial awareness of the text, there will always be ways to find great meaning in both chapters. The story of Fritz Rappolt breaking his isolation with a card from the Minsk Ghetto teaches us that hope for better times is stronger than any forced segregation or horror, and the Midrash that teaches us of opportunity for both professionals and lay leaders to take part in one’s healing or purification, reflects on how wide our traditions, and indeed our Global Family, really are.
About the author:
Rabbi Grisha Abramovich leads the Union for Progressive Judaism in Belarus and the Sandra Breslauer Beit Simcha Center in Minsk.
The above was formerly published as #269 in our Torah from Around the World series.