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Rabbi Deborah Blausten

Tazria Metzora - Seeing Each Other's Faces

You can listen to Rabbi Deborah's sermon or read it below:

Dr Sandra Lee has 7 million followers on youtube and 4.2 million on instagram. She’s better known as dr pimple popper and she has made a name for herself by producing what you might think is niche content but apparently is anything but- filming her work as a dermatologist, removing cysts, squeezing pus, and clearing blackheads

I’m pretty squeamish, and unsurprisingly perhaps I’m not so sold on the appeal of watching boils being lanced for fun, but these videos are cited by fans as being soothing or satisfying to watch, and they clearly have a big audience

What perhaps makes them even more remarkable is that they've taken off on the very platforms that are so often associated with photo editing, filters, airbrushing, and all manner of image modification to hide exactly the blemishes and imperfections that dr pimple popper shows. But maybe that’s also why, because what she shows is real, and its getting harder and harder to see images of real skin. 

Most of our phones contain filters and on many phones they turn on automatically when they detect a face, most video chat apps have a skin touch up feature as standard, a lot of the time we don’t even know when our image is being edited.

Across the internet, on a friday, a campaign called filter free friday runs, it basically is there to draw attention to the fact that over the past year especially when so many of us have interacted with other through screens, and indeed have seen our own faces far more than ever, many of those images have been distorted, often in ways we can barely perceive. What they do is subtly convey an ideal, a bright, wrinkle and blemish free ideal. 

This shabbat, one of the readings we will hear read is from parashat tazria,
Rabbi Asher Lopatin describes it thus: “This is a portion about everything going wrong with the way we look. Our skin breaks out in weird ways, we lose some hairs, or they start showing up in a different color.”

These conditions don’t endanger anyone else, but are seen to make the person who has them in some way unclean, impure, or unfit for existing in the social space. Midrash teaches that skin diseases in particular were viewed by our ancestors as moral in nature, manifestations of sin on the body. It’s pretty hard reading, but also unsurprising, as we see similar patterns in our society where conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis and so many other common and normal skin conditions can have such a huge impact on someone’s self perception, self worth, and desire to be seen in public.

It was in conversation with a student this week that I realised how many times in conversation with a member of FRS or with a friend about coming out of lockdown, people’s physical appearance was raised, how present anxieties over skin and size and shape were, how people apologised for their lockdown look, how they tempered people’s excitement about seeing those they've not seen for a while, how unlike in times of torah were exile connected to physical appearance was conferred by the priest or enforced by law and social systems, these are softer, social, internalised, but no less impactful on people’s experience of life. 

It’s important to name these things, so that we can create spaces for people carrying anxieties to share them, and so that we can offer a counter narrative, one that says that generations ago our ancestors did not understand that it wasn’t immorality causing a rash, god causing mask acne, or any other normal changes or bodily fluids making you dirty, and their lack of understanding shaped our society. 

We often say that our world is different to theirs, but this is one area where the legacy of that language really hangs over us. We do not need to moralise or stigmatise human bodies, skin, in all of its ordinary imperfection and diversity, it’s all holy, and as we emerge into the 3d world, we at shul and all those who love you will just be thrilled to see you, all of you, not filtered or preened you, but you, however you are. 

Sun, 26 September 2021 20 Tishrei 5782