On Tum’a and Tohara
Of all the sections of the Torah, the readings for this week and next, Tazria and Metzora (Leviticus 12-15, which on non-leap years are “doubled over” to be read together on one Shabbat), are perhaps the most difficult ones about which to say anything significant or meaningful. As a friend of mine once said, only half in jest, ”Whoever succeeds in saying something relevant about Tazria-Metzora brings redemption to the world.”
This week’s portion consists of two main sections. The opening, brief chapter of eight verses describes the procedure followed by a woman following childbirth. There is a two-stage ritual impurity, consisting of an initial seven days (or 14 for a girl) of strict impurity and separation from her husband; this is followed by a second period of 33 days (or 66 days, for a girl) of modified impurity, known by the term dam tohar, “blood of purity,” during which, under old Torah-based Rabbinic law (mishnah rishonah), the woman was allowed to resume marital sexual relations with her husband, and to partake of some priestly gifts and holy things, but not to enter the Temple precincts.
The perennial question here is: Why the distinction between the birth of a boy and that of a girl? A variety of answers have been given: some taken from ancient and medieval medicine, asserting that the fetus of a girl takes twice as long to be formed as that of a boy, and hence requires a longer post-partum purification process (Sages, cited in Rabbenu Bahye); to that a female’s nature is “cold and moist,” requiring more purification (Ramban); to the statement that the Torah, concerned that the parents be able to enjoy closeness at the time of a circumcision, “so that they not be sad, and all the others rejoicing,” limited the woman’s impurity in this case to seven days; to the recent suggestion by Prof. Tirzah Meacham of the University of Toronto, that an infant girl occasionally discharges blood from her own infant womb, in response to the high estrogen level within the pre-natal environment, and thus an additional seven days were required for her own “impurity.” There are many other answers as well, some imaginative, some filled with moral lessons, but none of them convince this reader that they are the authentic, “original” peshat. All that can be said with any certainty is that the experience of birthing a girl is understood by the Torah as fundamentally different from that of birthing a boy.
To this, I would add a second question: why is this chapter placed at this particular location, rather than together with the other laws concerning impurity derived from various sorts of bodily discharges, in Ch. 15? As it stands, it is separated from these laws by Chapters 13 and 14, which deal with the totally different subject of tzara’at, “leprosy.” In addition, there are a number of puzzling features in the internal arrangement, both of Ch. 15, and of Chs. 13-14. More important, the entire concept of tum’a and tohara, of “purity” and “impurity,” is a strange and difficult one to us; we shall discuss some of these problems next week, in connection with these chapters.
The Priest as Physician
Chapters 13 and 14 deal with am ailment known as tzara’at, traditionally translated as “leprosy,” but in fact referring to some sort of highly contagious, lesser skin infection (for simplicity’s sake, we shall use here the traditional term). This was evidently a well-known disease, which aroused strong feelings of revulsion and danger among the public. The horror with which it was regarded is suggested by the total isolation and ostracism imposed by the Torah upon the victim of this disease. “… he shall sit outside of the camp, his hair shall be loose and his clothes shall be disheveled, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Impure! Impure!’ All the days of his impurity he shall dwell alone, outside of the camp” (13:45-46).
Beyond that, it is not made clear why the Torah deals with the subject at all. What we are given is a dry description of the disease, given in a series of brief paragraphs, each one of which gives a description of the symptoms, followed by what to do in border-line cases. Two points stand out: one, that the picture of the disease is a very dynamic one, in which in many cases the person is shut up for seven days, to be examined a second time. Second, that the priest plays a crucial role in diagnosing the disease, and in issuing instructions as to whether to consider the victim pure, impure, or to continue his border-line condition another seven days.
Subsequent sections (these spill over into the next portion, Metzora) deal with “leprous” infection of inanimate objects, to wit, garments or the stones from which a house is built, as well as the interesting ritual for expatiating leprosy after its cure. The question is: why does the Torah trouble to present this in such detail? There is something jarring, discordant between this chapter and the other sections of the Torah, even in Leviticus.
Interestingly, this is perhaps the only section in the entire Torah which is interpreted by most major mefarshim (exegetes) on the level of midrash: that is, as one whose meaning and true importance are not conveyed by the plain sense of the chapters themselves. I say this, notwithstanding that in Mishnaic times Negaim and Ohalot (the tractates dealing with the laws of tzara’at and with impurity related to enclosures or coverings over the dead) were considered the “meat and potatoes” of halakhic studies. The only comparable example of such a strongly midrashic line of interpretation is the Song of Songs, which in Rabbinic lore is always read metaphorically or allegorically.
Most midrashim take it as axiomatic that tzara’at is a punishment for evil speech, lashon hara. This is strengthened by the other places in which tzara’at is mentioned in the Torah. In one of the signs shown to Moses in the scene at the burning bush, God asks him to place his hand within his bosom, and when he takes it out it is “leprous, white as snow” (Exod 4: 6-7). This is seen by Rashi and the midrashim as punishment for his speaking ill of the Israelites and doubting their readiness to believe his message. The second case involves Miriam being struck with leprosy when he and Aaron speak about Moses‘ “Cushite” wife (Num 12, esp. at v. 9). This episode presumably prompted the instruction in Deuteronomy to take care regarding “all that the priests and Levites may instruct you” regarding the signs of leprosy, followed immediately by the admonition to “remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way…” (Deut 24:8-9). This juxtaposition is very strange, unless it was already taken as axiomatic that leprosy was a punishment for lashon hara. (Albeit it is this connection is not mentioned explicitly, it only saying “remember what God did to Miriam,” the implicit assumption being that everyone knew the connection in her case between crime and punishment). In the later biblical books, too, we find leprosy as punishment for other improper misbehavior. Striking is the incident involving Elisha’s servant Gehazi who, after Naaman, commander of the Syrian army, came to Elisha to be cured of leprosy, ran after him to “shnorr” money and gifts. Elisha, disgusted with this demeaning and immoral behavior, curses Gehazi that “Naaman’s leprosy shall cleave to you and to your descendants forever” (2 Kings 5; at v. 27). On the other hand, there is no indication that the four leprous men at the gate of Samaria in 2 Kings 7:3 were guilty of any moral turpitude.
The conclusion to be drawn is that the Torah sees tzara’at as an object lesson, reflecting its deep faith that illness is Divine recompense for wrong-doing; or, viewed in other words, that moral ill is reflected in the body (a kind of reverse “Picture of Dorian Gray” principle), a concrete manifestation of the “just world.”
Unity of Body and Soul
As this chapter involves midrashic thinking, I will add my own reflections on these matters. What this chapter teaches more than anything else (at least in its traditional exegesis) is the integration of body and spirit. Disease is seen as an external expression of an inner rottenness or malaise. The Torah views this in moral terms: tzara’at as an outward manifestation of sin, especially the secretive sin of bearing tales against others. In my own immediate experience, I have seen how closely illness or health may be linked to emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. Two striking examples come to mind, in two opposite directions. One: a woman suffering from a serious illness whom, over the course of three years of mostly spiritual and psychological healing coupled with non-conventional medicine, was essentially cured. The opposite case: an older woman, physically strong and healthy but deeply depressed and grieving the death of her husband, was hospitalized for a relatively routine operation; a routine pre-op exam triggered a series of events that were nearly inexplicable in medical terms, until three months later she died.
We are at a strange cultural juncture in human history. On the one hand, science and technology are striding forward by leaps and bounds. The computer and new communications technologies are changing the way we work, shop, do business, receive news and information, even socialize—virtually every aspect of our culture. Biotechnology is changing how we raise crops for food, how animals are bred, and is even beginning to change the way in which we reproduce as human beings. Geneticists recently announced the imminent decoding of the human genome, suggesting the possibility to diagnose and cure genetic faults and diseases—and perhaps to “engineer” the makeup of human beings. Neurologists are claiming to understand more and more fully the workings of the human brain. But together with that, more and more people, specifically in advanced Western society, seem to be disillusioned with this “brave new world,” and are seeking an anchor for their lives in other, more traditional forms of wisdom. Among some, there is a return to more holistic, organic ways of looking at the universe; in another group, there seems to be a more and more deterministic and reductionist view of the human being.
I believe that the deepest intellectual challenge to religion in general, and to Judaism in particular, during the new century will be from a kind of “biologism”: a view that asserts that man can be understood as a purely biological creature, as essentially a product of his genetic makeup, no more than a bundle of predetermined predilections. Already one is hearing biologically-based apologia for the ruthless economic Darwinism which has emerged over the past two decades, erasing much of the progress toward a more humane society gained with great struggle by the labor movement and others during the early part of the twentieth century. Popular magazines propound a kind of crude apology for male philandery as biologically natural, and hence somehow OK. The current “politically-correct” acceptance of homosexuality (an issue we shall discuss in Aharei Mot) is also based upon a biological-neurological argument. Ultimately, such an approach undermines two basic foundations of Judaism: the belief in human free will, behira hofshit; and the concept that man is created betzelem elokim, in the Divine image, with a soul that contains within it a spark of the Divine.
These issues are profound ones, on which there is a great deal to be said. For now, I will try to conclude with a few brief thoughts, in telegraphic form. It is important to understand, with all due respect to the wonderful accomplishments of modern science and technology, that the underlying world-view of these disciplines is limited by the tools that it chooses to use. When it becomes an all-embracing, exclusive world-view, it can be dangerous. The empirical view of the universe, and of man, is based upon certain basic perceptual and philosophical flaws; its purview is limited to certain kind of measurable and quantifiable phenomena, which must not be mistaken for the Whole. (Several books that I have found extremely instructive and enlightening in understanding these issues are: vis a vis the question of world-view: Huston Smith, The Forgotten Truth and Jacob Needleman, A Sense of the Cosmos; on the grave cultural effects of technology, a book written nearly 40 years ago, the truth of whose grim prophecy is becoming more evident with every passing year, Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society.)
Paradoxically, at least in light of some of the struggles in contemporary Israeli society (viz. the role of the Supreme Court, and Basic Laws), true protection of “human freedom and dignity” is to be found, not in secularism, but in an authentic, deeply religious world-view.
Tum’a and Tohara, contd.
Parashat Metzora continues the theme of tum’a & tohara, usually translated as ritual purity and impurity. The salient feature of this parasha, following passages that round off the laws of “leprosy” began in last week’s portion, is the group of laws concerning various forms of impurity that issue from the body. Chapter 15 consists of laws of impurity issuing from sexually related discharges of both men and women, including discharges (presumably) originating in venereal diseases, menstruation, and even a brief period of impurity from ordinary sexual intercourse.
One of the explanations put forward in recent years (I think it was first articulated by Rachel Adler in The [First] Jewish Catalog in the early ‘70’s; perhaps it was also a spin-off of the work of such anthropologists as Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger, and of course Claude Lévi-Strauss) sees the central theme of tum’a as related to the human encounter with various manifestations of mortality, and the consciousness of the vulnerability and transience (what the Christian Scriptures call “corruptibility”) of ones own body. Thus, tuma’ is always ultimately connected with death and mortality: whether through birth or sexuality (the spilling of seed, containing the germ of life, but also the potentiality for new life to not be created); menstruation (in which the life-giving potentiality in a particular month has been missed); the deterioration and corruption of the body experienced in disease, such as tzara’at (“leprosy”) and zivah (presumably gonorrhea); and, ultimately, contact with death and dead bodies, called by our Rabbis avi avot hatum’a, the ultimate source of impurity, to which a special chapter is devoted further along in the Torah, in Numbers 19.
Purification from tum’a is in turn affected through water, the universal source of cleansing and purification; life-giving (in biblical thought, water is sometimes pictured as fructifying a field in much the same way as the male impregnates the female; e.g. in Isa 55:10); ever fresh and renewing (i.e., spring waters or mountain streams); as well as dissolving and washing away all in its path. When I first encountered these concepts in my youth, I was taught to think of tum’a largely as a formal, halakhic category. Tum’a was no more than the opposite or absence of tohara, that state of ritual purity required to enter the Temple precincts and to partake of certain priestly foods. This dialectical link between tum’a and the mikdash is neatly expressed in a verse towards the end of our portion—“You shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die (!) in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst” (Lev 15:31). Today, on the face of it, there is no need for tohara—since in any event we neither eat kodashim (sacred things) nor (apart from a few crazies) enter the Temple Mount. Furthermore, in the absence of the ashes of the red heifer, we are all formally considered tame’ei met anyway.
Yet upon further reflection, it seems clear that tohara is a desirable religious condition, while tum’a is seen as a reprehensible state. Thus, the Haverim, the early Sages in the generations during and immediately following the destruction of the Temple, strove to conduct their ordinary, mundane life activities in a state of tohara. Similarly, many latter-day Hasidim immerse in the mikveh, the public ritual bath, every morning so as to achieve the maximum degree of purity before beginning their morning prayers.
I look at these phenomena with mixed feeling. On the one hand, Soloveitchik’s “halakhic man” would see this as an exaggerated, unnecessary preoccupation with things one is not obligated to do. A psychological perspective might add that this seems to reflect an inability to come to terms with ones corporeality. On the other hand, there is here a certain genuine striving for spirituality. As one grows older, one sees how much of ones life is consumed, either by bodily lusts and desires, on the one hand; or by the corruption, the inevitable deterioration and aging of the body, on the other. The desire to transcend all that, at least symbolically, is somehow understandable.
Moreover, upon closer reading it becomes apparent that there are places in the Bible where the word tamei is used in a moral sense as well, independent of its generating formal ritual impurity. Thus, in the case of the unfaithful wife (Num 5:11-31, at 13-14, 19-20, 27-29); in that of the woman who returns to her first husband after marriage to another man (Deut 24:1-4, at 4: “after she had been rendered impure,” a surprisingly strong term for what had been legitimate marital relations); and in the context of kashrut: these animals, birds, etc. are tamei lakhem, “impure to you” (Lev 11, passim). And there are no doubt other passages that escape my memory. Thus, the rules of tum’a and tohara seem to be part of the larger activity of “world construction,” which we noted earlier in the context of kashrut.
”Seven Days She Shall be in Her Impurity”
The one aspect of the laws of purity and impurity that is still in effect today is that pertaining to menstrual impurity, and the separation during that period between husband and wife, observed today by many traditionally observant and most Orthodox Jews. This observance has spawned an entire apologetic literature, beginning with the quaint, slightly quixotic Secret of the Jew of the 1920’s, to Maurice Lamm’s classic A Hedge of Roses, through literally dozens of books, pamphlets, etc. (providing a ripe mine for future doctoral dissertations, as Isaac Bashevis Singer once quipped about the future of a Yiddish literature without native readers). The most usually offered explanation is that the observance of periodical sexual separation assures the freshness and romance of the marriage, making life into a constant “honeymoon.” Rabbi Shmuely Boteah, the enfant terrible of Oxford, has even advocated selling the idea to non-Jews. A second line of explanation notes that the effect of the practice of “family purity” (as Hilkhot Niddah was rather sanitarily renamed by some unknown Victorian rabbi) is to maximalize Jewish fertility, through assuring that the couple will generally have intercourse as close to ovulation as possible (i.e., on the 12th day from beginning of menstruation, following the predominant custom today).
Partly because I enjoy the role of iconoclast, and partly because this approach presents real problems, I would like to speculate on an alternative explanation. The “romantic” line of apologia ignores one simple, stark fact. As the law appears here (15:19-24), it merely states that any man who lies with a woman during her impurity shall himself be considered impure for seven days. But the specific prohibition against sexual relations during menstruation appears in Chapter 18, alongside the rules against incest, adultery, and other highly serious sexual transgressions, all of which are collectively referred to as “abominations.” Further on, in 20:18, it specifically states that one who lies with a menstruant, “uncovering the fount of her blood… shall be cut off from his people”—i.e, shall is subject to the very serious sanction known as karet. This seems rather strong for a law whose aim is merely to obviate marital boredom. Moreover, it is interesting that this is the only sexual regulation relating to a bodily state, i.e., prohibiting relations between two people to whom they are ordinarily permitted. All this suggests that there was seen something horrible, unnatural, in the idea of menstrual sex.
Again, the answer is so simple as to be easily overlooked. Milton Himmelfarb observed years ago there is something in the Jewish sensibility (one might almost call it the Jewish “aesthetic”) that abhors blood, seeing both blood and a certain type of unfettered sexuality as antithetical to Judaism. “Inchastity is the piety of paganism… Bloodshed is likewise the piety of paganism… They did not need to read Ovid or Petronius or Tacitus or Juvenal to know how the pagans were about sex and about blood.” Alongside the proscription against sex with a menstruant, there is a very strongly written law—one might almost say, taboo—against eating the blood of an animal. The elaborate regulations surrounding the soaking and salting of meat in the kosher home are well-known. Alongside the great reverence for life, and for the blood that symbolizes it, there is a certain recoil from casual use of, or contact with, blood. One does not shed blood, one does not eat blood, and one does not, so to speak, have sex in blood.
An entirely different set of questions, upon which I can only touch in passing, deals with the issue of possible change in certain details of this observance. Our contemporary halakhic observance is based upon three or four separate seyagim, Rabbinic or customary “fences,” superimposed upon the original biblical law. Today’s separation of nearly two weeks is passed upon counting seven days from the end, rather than from the beginning, of menstruation. Due to certain exegetical difficulties in Mishnah Niddah 4.7 (and especially the difficult line of interpretation of the Rambam in Issurei Biah 6.6 ff., which proposes a strictly mathematical-conceptual model, that to my mind contravenes both common sense and experience), we apply the rules in vv. 25-30, rather than those in vv. 19-24, to every menstruant, even one who has her period with the regularity of a Swiss watch. This strict regimen is one that is extremely onerous to many couples, particularly in light of—how can we avoid it—contemporary attitudes towards sexuality. It is impossible to know how many young couples may be discouraged for this reason from adopting this basic Jewish observance. I thus ask, on a purely speculative basis, and not lema’aseh, whether there is not room for reversing some of these strict customs, and restoring the situation as it was before the series of strictures described by Rambam in I. B. 11.1-10.