There are sections of the Torah which some find rather irritating. Only an architect or builder, so the argument runs, would be interested in the passages in Sh’mot that deal with the design and construction of the Tabernacle. Only a doctor or nurse would be interested in today’s sidra with its medical detail about diagnosis and treatment.
So why not pass over this material and move to something more spiritual?
It is not difficult to suggest an answer. For the Torah, everything is spiritual. It has been said that God is interested in many things other than religion: that is, if you see religion as merely priests, pews and prayers. Judaism sees life and religion as coextensive. How you build a house, wash plates, run a business, see the stars – all are part of the scope of religion.
Hence it should not surprise us that the leprosy law in today’s reading involves the kohen. He is not simply an officiant in the sanctuary but also a public health official, investigating suspected leprosy, imposing a period of quarantine, pronouncing the disease cured. (There are various kinds of leprosy in the Bible, some more curable than others.)
But how did a spiritual leader reconcile his “religious” and “secular” interests? Presumably his medical activity required training. Did this not detract from his religious studies? One might ask the same question of famous rabbinical figures throughout history. After all, the Talmudic rabbis included scribes and astronomers, cobblers and gladiators. Rashi had a vineyard. The Rambam was a doctor.
It is not just that the rabbinate was not then a salaried profession and therefore people had to make a living. To be a member of the Sanhedrin a person had to be versed in the range of human activity.
The Rambam says, “We only appoint to the Sanhedrin men of wisdom and understanding, outstandingly expert in the Torah and possessed of wide knowledge. They should know something of all branches of knowledge, such as medicine, mathematics and the seasons and even the nonsense of idol-worship and other such subjects, so that they will be able to judge in such matters” (Laws of Sanhedrin 2:1).
This is not simply a matter of history, applying to the Sanhedrin of ancient days. In messianic days when the Sanhedrin is reconstituted, rabbis without secular knowledge will be at a disadvantage!
In truth, everything is part of religion. The Bible says, “In all your ways know Him” (Prov. 3:6). In science, I see the Divine hand designing and directing an amazingly intricate universe. In the arts I see the creative spirit He has placed in the human heart and mind. In medicine I see God-given healing protecting body and spirit. In law I see Him enabling man to build a balanced society dedicated to peace, justice and truth.
Wherever I go I see God. So-called secular study helps to reveal the Master of the Universe. The Talmud took this for granted: a significant area of its concern is analysis of precisely such matters!
The priest who diagnosed leprosy was therefore doing God’s work in the broader sanctuary of the human community.