Friday, April 04, 2008

Tazria - Hahodesh

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives for this blog at April 2006.

We note with sadness the recent passing of three people. Chana Safrai, Talmud scholar and teacher and a central figure in religious feminism in Israel, was at the time of her death working, together with her brother Ze’ev, on a project Mishnat Eretz Yisrael. Though I had not had ongoing contact with Chana for many years, at one point we served together on the Executive of Ne’emanei Torah ve-Avodah; indeed, it was she who first brought me into the movement. Secondly, Gerald Cromer, a valued member of the Yedidiah community, founding member years ago of the London Havurah, criminologist and social activist. Though I knew Gerald only marginally, we were connected with the same circles, and he always gave me the impression of being a particularly fine person. The lives of both Chana and Gerald were cut short by severe illness while they were still very much in their prime. Third, Ra’aya Marcus, a distant cousin by marriage, whose family was the first one I came to know during the year I spent here in Israel as a teenager, and whose warm hospitality I enjoyed often. May the memory of all be a blessing.

Purity and Holiness

The two parshiyot read this week and next (which in most years are coupled together) are very difficult—both in the technical sense and, more so for our purposes, in terms of relating them to our own world of concepts and values. Both portions are concerned with physical forms of tumah (“impurity,” “uncleanness,” or even “contamination”) originating from the body, the limitations they impose, and the methods of purification from them. These include both tzara’at—usually translated as “leprosy,” but in fact a series of other kinds of skin affections—and various sexually related discharges, both normal and malignant—childbirth itself, seminal emission, menstruation, and abnormal discharge (gonorrhea?) on the part of both men and women. The latter two form the basis for what is known as taharat hamishpaha (“family purity”: a rather coy Victorian euphemism); otherwise, these halakhot are essentially defunct.

Last Shabbat I chanced upon an interesting comment in He’emek Davar (by R. Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the Natziv of Volozhin) warning against confusing the concepts of taharah and kedushah (purity and holiness), and suggesting that the rebellion of Korah was somehow related to such a confusion. In this comment (quoted in the weekly parsha sheet Shabbat Shalom), he takes note of a certain technical detail of the laws of preparation of the Parah Adumah, the red heifer whose ashes were used in the purification ritual for those contaminated by contact with the dead. Notwithstanding the great importance of this ritual, the halakhah specifically limits the strictures involved therein, and requires that it be slaughtered by a tevul yom—that is, a person on a provisional, less-than-absolute degree of purity—rather than by one on a higher level of purity. The Natziv concludes that this rule was intended to assure that people not exaggerate in the laws of purity where unnecessary, and not confuse the requirements of purity with the quest for holiness.

This prompted me to seek a more precise definition of what is meant by taharah and tum’ah. I began with a close reading of the biblical verses themselves, to see if there was an implied definition. In addition to the two “classical” parshiyot of tumah and taharah discussed here, I found that the concepts of purity and impurity play a central role in two areas of Jewish (and human) life relating to central areas of physical pleasure, that are very much in effect today: namely, those governing food and sex, i.e., kashrut and arayot. Both those laws defining permitted and forbidden species of living creatures (Leviticus 11—Shemini) and those regarding forbidden sexual unions (Lev 18—Aharei Mot) are concluded with extended passages emphasizing that, by observing these prohibitions, one avoids becoming tamei. Thus, in Lev 11:43-47: “Do not make yourselves disgusting by [eating] any swarming things, and do not become tamei through them… For I am the Lord your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy, and not contaminate yourselves…” Similarly, regarding the laws of incest and other forbidden sexual unions, 18:24ff. reads: “Do not make yourselves tamei in all these, for the nations whom I expel before you made themselves tamei with all these things. And the land became contaminated… and spit out its inhabitants… therefore, do not do all these abominations.”

While purity and holiness are intermingled in both these passages, there is also a clear hierarchy between them: taharah is a kind of predicate to kedushah. Tumah, broadly speaking, refers to various negative impediments to contact with the realm of the holy; tahara is thus a positive state, defined by the absence of tumah, and as such is a prerequisite of holiness—but it is not holiness in itself. To be sure, holiness also implies a certain sense of restriction, of being set apart, and even carries certain prohibitions in its wake—whether it be a woman who is “sanctified” to her husband, and thereby precluded from intimate contact with all other men; the Land of Israel or Jerusalem, which are “holy” and have certain laws applying within their boundaries that do not apply elsewhere; the Shabbat and other holy days, which inter alia are defined in terms of restrictions; or animal or material goods sanctified for use by the Temple (hekdesh), which cannot be used for secular purposes.

But the difference is that holiness is not merely the absence of the negative, but also implies being set apart for a certain purpose. A person who strives for kedushah (defined as one of the highest levels in such moral guidebooks as Mesillat Yesharim) is really striving to fulfill the Divine image within himself to the ultimate degree: whether this be defined in terms of yedi’at ha-Shem, knowledge of God, a certain kind of religious consciousness or awareness; or in terms of hidamot la-Shem, what is known in Western thought as imitatio dei, a certain God-like flow of love, of generosity, of hesed, of caring for others. (We will return to the question of holiness after Pesah, in Parashat Kedoshim). But whatever the precise contents of holiness, it is clear that it is more than the mere absence of negative factors, but in itself a powerfully positive force.


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