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20.04.2020 19:36    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah shabbat  parashah tazria  metzorabar ilan u  

On the Body, Purity and Impurity

The passages on bodily contamination and purification introduce us to a world of concepts not encountered prior to our receiving the Torah.  Throughout the book of Genesis and Exodus, until the Torah was given, we come across countless practical aspects of encounter with the Holy One, blessed be He:  sacrificing and tithing (“I will set aside a tithe for You,” Gen. 28:22); circumcision and marriage laws; moral imperatives (“Why do you strike your fellow?” Ex. 2:13), and laws about looking after another’s property (Jacob and Laban); prohibiting theft (“which the servants of Abimelech had seized” Gen. 21:25), and laws of inheritance; blessings and prayers, and so on and so forth.

Essentially, all the components of the Torah are found there save for the laws of purity and impurity.  The fact that all the components of the Teaching existed before the Torah was given indicates that there is “proper human behavior that came before the Torah”; human beings fashioned an entire world as a result of the encounter with G‑d.  Clearly the Torah did not accept this world as it is, and our halakhic obligation began from the moment the Torah was given at Mount Sinai.  However, the very fact that these realms existed in such form as they did indicates that there is a nexus between human experience and all the parts of the Torah — except, as we said, with regard to purity and impurity.

The concepts of purity and impurity are first encountered at Mount Sinai (the expression, “clean animals” that appears in Parashat Noah [Gen. 7:2, 8; 8:20] is not connected to the laws of purity and impurity, rather to the laws of what is forbidden and what is permitted):  “Do not go near a woman” (Ex. 19:15).  Next they appear in full force in Parashat Tazria and Parashat Metzora.  This fact alone indicates that we are dealing with concepts that cannot emerge from within man, rather are all presented in the Torah entirely as a divine manifestation.  This has many consequences and significantly alters our attitude towards the body.

From what is written in these passages we see that the concepts of pure and impure, or clean and unclean, are not merely spiritual.  Indeed, elsewhere in the Bible Scripture speaks of spiritual purity, e.g., “Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves” (Lev. 18:24), or, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean” (Ezek. 36:25), but these are metaphoric expressions.

These weekly readings teach us that purity and impurity have to do with the actual body.  The great innovative idea here is that biological processes, some of them regulated by our biological clocks (menstruation), some of them voluntary even a priori (ejaculation), some desirable (impurity after childbirth), some stemming from a departure from usual biological function (discharges), and some not understood (leprosy)—all these provide the foundation for spiritual and halakhic conditions.

The division between body and soul, a distinction we are accustomed to making, is not at all dominant in the Torah.  Man is not a dichotomous being, and eternal struggles do not take place between various sides in his personality.  Quite the contrary, man is a whole, and from the day he was created from the dust of the earth and the spirit of life was instilled in him, he has been one.  The blood is the life spirit.  The body and soul are not separate entities, certainly not foes according to the plain sense of Scripture.  They became a single entity, and different aspects of the Torah express this unity.  The laws of purity and impurity are one expression of this.

The notion of purity in the Torah has diverse manifestations:  as a state of consciousness, as related to morality, to the behavioral and to the physical.  The fact that other biological discharges of the human body were not defined as impure makes all the more prominent our obligation to view these laws as something substantive and not just part of a theme of hygiene.  This is especially noticeable when it comes to the laws of leprosy.  The Oral Law teaches us that the presence of leprosy itself is not what makes a person impure; rather, it is the priest’s proclamation of the condition as such.  Without this proclamation, the leper is not impure.

Thus the laws of purity and impurity belong to the complex of ordinances (hukkim), not laws whose rationality is evident.  Nevertheless, over the years attempts have been made at deciphering their significance.  The Rishonim did not refrain from searching for an explanation of the laws of purity such as would make sense to the human intellect.  Their main thesis states (among other things) that even though these are not rational laws, they also have a basis which can approach the intellect, even if not enable us to thoroughly understand the commandment in all its detail.  A marvelous attempt at coping with making sense of the laws of leprosy can be found in the teachings of Rabbi Judah Halevy.  Even though he was opposed in principle to ascribing a reason for the commandments and compared searching for the sense of a commandment to a fool in a pharmacy, he himself did not refrain from offering a reasonable explanation:

The Rabbi:  I told thee that there is no comparison to be made between our intelligence and the Divine Influence, and it is proper that we leave the cause of these important things unexamined.  I take, however, the liberty of stating—though not with absolute certainty—that leprosy and issue are occasionally the consequence of contamination by corpses.  A dead body represents the highest degree of malignancy, and a leprous limb is as if dead.  It is the same with lost seed, because it had been endowed with living power, capable of engendering a human being.  Its loss, therefore, forms a contrast to the living and breathing…(2.60)[1]

So we see that the laws of purity and impurity are a continuation of the ways of the Torah, commanding us to adhere to life and distance ourselves from death.  Impurity is caused not only by the dead person himself (a theme dealt with in Parashat Hukkat) but also by the reproductive system that has not come to fruition:  the ovum that is washed out by the woman’s menstrual blood; the semen of the man, etc.  In this connection, there is especial need to explain the impurity of the parturient, but one cannot deny that it, too, has to do with the cycle of life.  The common factor of the various types of impurity is death:  whether it be an impurity that emanates from a person’s body, as we have in Parashat Tazria and Parashat Metzora, whether it be the impurity of the dead that appears in Hukkat, or whether it be the impurity of the crawling creatures about which we read in Parashat Shemini—all essentially lead to distancing ourselves from death.

This is an integral part of the special nature of the Teaching of the Jewish faith:  while other religions find themselves particularly tied to death and through the dead person search for the bridge between the world in which we live and G‑d, the Jewish faith works the opposite way.  Ours is a Teaching of life, putting life as its first concern.  This principle finds expression both in the laws of purity and impurity, which as we have said connect a person to life, and in other places, such as in the statement, “by the pursuit of which man shall live” (Lev. 18:5).  Most commandments of the Torah are put in abeyance in order to save a life.

Thus the Torah, in the way it relates to biological processes in the human body, teaches us about its position vis-a-vis the main axis of life and death, shaping the proper awareness for the religious person. The Sages expressed this idea in the way they used the verse, “Even a live dog is better than a dead lion” (Eccles. 9:4), in discussing the laws regarding life-threatening situations.  However, as we said, this principle finds expression in a broad scope of themes in the Torah.  Thus body and soul, biology and spiritual perceptions, all come together with the central message of our Torah, a Law of life.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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