Disease as Punishment?
Though Tzara’at (commonly misidentified as leprosy) resembles a medical condition, its diagnosis and cure belong in the religious realm and not the ‘secular’, medical one. True, much of the treatment seems medical: seclusion and cleansing, but it is a Kohen, not a physician, who diagnoses it, and it is a Kohen who pronounces the patient healed. Furthermore, one finds among its laws that the condition only becomes Tzara’at and thereby contagious when the Kohen pronounces it and onward, not retroactively. Upon arrival for a house inspection before they enter, the Kohen tells the occupants to remove all their furniture so that it will not become impure should the Kohen indeed declare Tzara’at. Furniture that was in the house with the still-undiagnosed Tzara’at is unaffected.
A Kohen cannot diagnose their own Tzara’at or that of their relatives (Mishna, Nega’im 2:5). If no qualified Kohen is available, Tzara’at will not exist since it only comes into being with the Kohen’s declaration. When the Torah’s mechanism for diagnosis and cure became unachievable with the cessation of the priestly sacrificial Temple service, Tzara’at disappeared from the world, hence its absence today.
Slander is usually assumed to be the cause of Tzara’at because the first two reported cases, Moshe’s and Miriam’s, happened after they slandered (Shemot 4:6, Bamidbar 12:10). Rabbi Yoḥanan is quoted in the Talmud (Sotah 15a) as saying seven transgressions cause it: slander, murder, unnecessarily swearing, licentiousness, arrogance, theft, and selfishness. Elsewhere (Berakhot 5b), he is quoted saying that Tzara’at can never be a ‘chastisement of love’ (undeserved suffering in this world, divinely inflicted to benefit the sufferer in the World to Come). The Gemara there questions this since a baraita terms Tzara’at an ‘atoning altar’; it tries to reconcile these statements so that sometimes Tzara’at can be a chastisement of love or at least not a punishment.
Miriam’s Tzara’at perplexed the Sages: The Talmud (Zevaḥim 102a) recounts how Aharon complained that Miriam was disadvantaged having no unrelated Kohen to pronounce her cured; Aharon and his sons were her brother and nephews. God reassured him, greatly honouring Miriam: ‘I myself am a Kohen, I will segregate her, I will declare her, and I will free her.’ But the Tosafot there point out a flaw: in the absence of a valid Kohen, Miriam had an advantage – no pronouncement means no Tzara’at to begin with! Miriam would merely wait for the symptoms to pass without requiring segregation or other actions to re-attain purity!
Given this, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1816-1893) known by his initials as ‘the NeTzIV’, suggested a novel understanding of the Talmudic passage in Berakhot: Tzara’at can only be an ‘altar of atonement’ or ‘chastisement of love’ when the whole procedure can be performed – in the Land of Israel with a functional Temple. Otherwise, the symptoms are merely a mundane medical condition. The Netziv suggests that Aharon wanted her to receive the spiritual benefits of actual Tzara’at; without a valid Kohen, she would miss this opportunity. (Ha’amek Davar, Vayikra 13:2)
Extremist religious leaders love to proclaim that disasters are punishments for certain specific ‘transgressions’, usually ones which threaten male dominance and heteronormativity. Others often tell us to welcome pain as spiritually beneficial. From the above we conclude that these approaches are not consistent with Judaism. God may respond to transgressions with suffering, but sometimes God causes suffering non-punitively; we cannot decide which is which. Neither are we expected to willingly accept suffering as a Godly gift. Though not unheard of, tradition regards those loving chastisements as rare, occurring only in very specific, limited circumstances.
The Jewish response to disasters is well documented in the Torah, especially in our Parasha: Vigilance, self-protection, distancing from danger and preventing infection, while never forgetting to act with compassion towards all. And along with all that – praying.