Of bald men, bearded ladies, and Parsha Tazria


I created a program several years ago called ParshaDrama, in which I go to a school and present the weekly Torah portion to different grades through a combination of storytelling and dramatics, playing the roles of the various characters while sometimes calling up students to assist when there are multiple characters in the Torah’s storyline.

For Parsha Tazria, I typically call up volunteers in order to “point out” the kinds of blemishes that are described in the parsha, accompanied by an explanation of the process the person will now have to endure in order to be deemed tahor again.

Since I mostly deal with younger grades, I am often in a co-ed school with boys and girls together.

On one such visit, immediately after presenting the parsha about the dedication of the Mishkan and the role of Aharon and his sons — including the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, — one girl, who is in first or second-grade, asked me why I don’t include girls in the story. After accepting her critique, I told her I am unaware of Aharon having daughters. And I reminded her (with a smile … I was very nice) there are many “girls” in the stories in Bereshit, even if they are not as prominent as the “boys.”

I pick the girl volunteers to demonstrate many of the tzara’at  afflictions in our parsha, or for a unisex discussion about law in Mishpatim, as well as anytime I specifically need someone with a beard (e.g. some kohen situations in parshat Emor), because many of the girls are adept at bringing their ponytails round to front and tying them under their chins.

It is an interesting point of note that the only person recorded by the Torah to have been afflicted with tzara’at is a woman (Miriam, in Bamidbar 13). It does not follow that tzara’at is a women’s disease any more than a men’s disease, as we encounter other metzo’ra’im (tzara’at inflicted individuals) in the rest of the Bible who are men as well.

Our parsha this week begins talking about the status of a woman who “has seed” and gives birth to a boy, or who gives birth to a girl. And while the parsha talks primarily about the generic “Adam” (human, male or female) who gets tzara’at, the Torah specifically mentions “a man or a woman” who have a nega (mark) on the head or on the beard (13:29).

Is the Torah addressing the circus and the bearded lady (some interesting ladies have embraced their genetic disorder that causes facial hair to grow … it’s amazing what you can find on Google)?

Rashi explains this strange language to mean that the Torah is distinguishing between tzara’at that occurs on hairy spots versus tzara’at that appears on skin where hair does not grow. Perhaps, on “the head” refers to women, who do not usually go bald, while on “the beard” refers to men, who usually (certainly in Biblical times) have facial hair. “The head” could refer to a bald spot (for men who suffer from hair loss) and “the beard” spot could refer to women who are usually naturally clean-shaven.

Chizkuni simply says the head is speaking of the woman, while the beard speaks of the man. This explanation is eyebrow-raising because the Torah generally follows the order of applying the first noun to the first noun (which are man and head) and the second noun to the second noun (which are woman and beard).

Alshikh ignores the cantillation mark which puts a significant pause between the man or woman (pause) on the head or beard, suggesting that both man or woman is connected to “on the head,” while “on the beard” is a tag-on for the men who do not show respect to other people (he explains what he means).

HaChaim first says that the word “or” — as in “a man or a woman” — is utilized to separate the experiences of the man and the woman, rather than using the word “and” which would otherwise suggest that the rule in this verse apply equally to man and woman on head and on beard – which it doesn’t, because, as he puts it, “a woman does not have a beard.” He concludes, however, that were it to be the case that a woman does grow a beard (I was right about the bearded lady!), the rules of the verse would apply to her equally.

There you have it folks: Equality in the Torah. Men and women can both get the same affliction. And there is even no discrimination against women who grow beards.

While we yearn for a time when G-d’s presence will be felt and the laws of tzara’at will be relevant to our regular existence, we also pray that all of us — men and women — behave in a manner that would never call for or cause anyone to get tzara’at.

That would mean that we fundamentally respect one another and look out for our fellow Jew and fellow human being in a manner befitting what should be our G-d-like natures.

Originally published in 2016.