I want to share with you something I did this morning in front of the congregation at our synagogue. Though I go everywhere bald, one place I hadn't done so was at services at the temple. Every Saturday morning when we go, I've worn one of my scarves. Until this morning!
Today's reading from the Torah (Old Testament - Leviticus ch. 13) is about skin diseases, baldness, and treatment by the ancient priests in Israel. I couldn't pass up this opportunity to volunteer to give the commentary (sort of like a sermon). Here is what I said:
This reading always seemed difficult to relate to with its descriptions of skin afflictions and complex priestly rituals for the purification of those afflicted…until a little over a year ago. (Here's where I took off my scarf.) As many of you know, I’ve lost all my hair due to an auto-immune disease called Alopecia Areata. I’m perfectly healthy and feel fine, except that I don’t have any hair, and it’s very unlikely it will ever grow back. I go everywhere bald, but have always worn a scarf here. Today is the perfect day to change that.
I frequently get asked what stage of chemotherapy I’m at, and supermarket checkers seem particularly fond of asking me “What are you fighting” - I answer “traffic” - or “How’s the good fight going?” Recently, a man turned and stared at me…and kept staring. Instead of looking away as I usually do when this happens, I looked right in his eyes and said “Yes, I’m bald.” He didn’t react and kept staring, so I said it again.
There’s just no getting around the fact that in our society, a bald woman is presumed to be that way because of medical treatment for a life-threatening illness. Looking at this Torah reading, it occurred to me that female baldness is a modern form of "Tazria"…a mark of illness or, in Torah terms, impurity.
Leviticus 13:45 says that a leper shall call, “Impure, impure!” to warn people away and avoid the spread of the impurity. Sometimes I feel like I need to shout the opposite message: “healthy! healthy!” to let people know they don’t need to be afraid or feel uncomfortable around me.
In this portion, the Torah expressly says (Leviticus 13:40):
"And when a man's head will become hairless, he is bald. He is pure. And if his head will become hairless from the corner of his face, he has a bald forehead. He is pure." Although the language refers to a “man”, and the text seems to exactly describe male pattern baldness, I think it’s speaking to me, too.
In our culture, baldness makes women feel isolated and defective. But, this portion tells us that we shouldn’t feel that way. Society, and some well-meaning friends and family members, ask me why I don’t wear a wig. The simple answer is I tried and can’t stand the heat and itchiness. So, rather than trying to hide my lack of hair, I choose to believe the Torah’s message that those who are bald are still to be counted among the clean and pure, and so can participate as full members of society.
What function did all these purification rituals serve? Perhaps an important part of the priest’s function as described was to satisfy the human need for control over the uncontrollable, such as disease. The hardest thing for me as my hair began to rapidly fall out was the sense of having no control over it. The feeling of helplessness over changes in our bodies like those described here, even benign changes like baldness, is probably similar to the anxieties our forebears felt when stricken with illness. The priestly rituals were probably intended to try to limit and comfort these anxieties, and in this way, gain some control over uncontrollable disease processes, as best they could.
Richard Elliot Friedman comments: “When one has a visible problem with his or her skin (including loss of hair) it is a special distress: embarrassing, frightening. One feels ugly. One does not know how long it will last. One wonders if others are making fun or pitying or feeling disgusted. The laws in this section convey that it is not that the person has done something wrong….We no longer treat these conditions through priests at the Temple, but we can still learn from this (section) to be sensitive (to people with illnesses that affect their appearance).”
Finally, I’ll share with you that it’s also been very interesting, as a Reform Jew, to be mistaken for an Orthodox woman. When I need a little warmth on my head, I wear a scarf, as you’ve all seen me do. In a Starbucks once, I was wearing one of my scarves, and I was wearing a long skirt and long sleeves, AND my chai (a charm that is the Hebrew word for "life") around my neck. The young woman behind the counter happened to be Jewish. She took one look at me, smiled brightly, and said “Oh, are you Orthodox?” I was surprised, and answered “No, I’m bald!” Maybe you had to be there, but it was pretty funny.
(end of commentary) That last story got a big laugh, I got rousing applause, and many heartfelt expressions of appreciation for sharing my personal perspective on this reading. I will not hesitate to go bald during services in the future.
Dear fellow Alopecians - take it from the Bible. We're not defective, we're not diseased, we don't have to hide ourselves away from the rest of society or hide our baldness. We're pure.
Blessings and good health to all,