Leviticus Reverence for the Wondrous Life Force

By Rabbi Brian Besser
Rabbi Brian Besser

Parashat Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59)

The Levitical laws of purity strike the modern ear as arcane at best, and repugnant at worst. What are we to make of the apparently misogynistic passage at the beginning this week’s Torah portion Tazria, declaring “impure” the childbearing mother, or next week’s portion declaring “impure” the menstruating woman for that matter? It would be a singularly sadistic God who fashioned the eisuman being with naturally occurring functions such as parturition and ovulation and then punished her for them.

Even according to the text’s plain meaning, it becomes clear that we are not dealing with defilement in the conventional sense when we realize that many of the human activities that the Torah labels tamei, “impure” or “unclean,” are unavoidable. For example, in an agrarian society such as ancient Israel, handling the carcasses of farm animals would be commonplace. As for touching a human corpse, elsewhere the Torah enjoins care for the dead as a mitzvah.

The Biblical conceptions of purity and impurity first opened up for me when, years ago, I heard a deceptively simple but powerful reading of Leviticus 10:10 offered by Ora Prochovnick, a Bay Area lawyer specializing in family practice for disadvantaged women:

:ולהבדיל בין הקודש ובין החול ובין הטמא ובין הטהור

 “You shall separate between the holy and the profane, between the impure and the pure.”

According to the common Biblical literary convention of parallelism, קודש, “holy,” is positioned in relation to טמא, normally translated “impure;” חול, “profane,” is positioned in relation to טהור, normally translated “pure.”The ordering of these terms upends our usual supposition: we would expect “impure”to go along with “profane,” not “holy.” What if tamei, “impure,” as an antipode to holiness, constitutes a different kind of holiness in and of itself?

The priestly system set forth in the Torah is preoccupied overall with separation, as evinced in the Levitical laws of purity in this week’s Torah portion, the dietary laws last week, the majestic creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, and elsewhere. Nowhere is the Torah’s predilection for dichotomy starker than between the realms of life and death. Consider some of the conditions that convey “impurity:” childbirth, handling a dead body, sexual intercourse, and so on. The mysterious moment when a new soul enters the world, or the equally profound moment when the soul departs, or the magical moment of fertilization when sperm enters egg—a process which modern science, for all of its advances, cannot begin to replicate—these overwhelming events constitute sacred ruptures in the normally impervious boundary that divides life from death, flash points of meeting between this world and the next world.

In Leviticus, the person who bears the greatest impurity, upon whom quarantine is imposed and who requires an extensive purification ritual before being readmitted into Israelite society, is the metzora, the so-called “leper” (although Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom demonstrates that the symptoms the Torah describes correspond to no known ailment—certainly not to leprosy). The metzora, whose skin flakes off in scales, appears as a walking corpse. “Let her not be as one dead,” Moses cries out for his stricken sister Miriam, “who emerges from the womb with half her flesh eaten away.” (Numbers 12:12) A particularly terrifying aspect arises when living flesh appears within the scaly affliction. (Leviticus 13:14) It is the commingling of living and dead matter on the skin of the metzora that is both dreadful and wondrous.

The metzora, or anyone else who comes in contact with the inscrutable forces underlying procreation and decay—through vaginal blood, semen, a corpse, a carcass, any medium that blurs the distinction between life and death, or any condition that exposes the mystery of life—must be kept apart from the community not because he is “impure” but, to the contrary, because the community is too “impure” for him! Ora writes: “Among the most miraculous moments of my life was attending to the birth of my daughters. The presence of Adonai was palpable, in the room. I can’t think of any other time when I felt closer to a sense of purity.” Anyone who has ever had the privilege of ritually bathing the deceased can attest to the awe and, indeed, the joy of the experience. The mother who births her child from the womb into life and the one who performs the mitzvah of taharah by lovingly tending to the dead body are not polluted and defiled; quite the opposite—they are in an accentuated state of holiness. They need the passage of time, and in ancient times they required sacrificial ritual, before re-entry into community, into the condition of “the profane,” into the world of ordinary affairs.

The view that the conditions rendering a person tamei actually represent accentuated states of holiness may not explain every example in Leviticus. For instance, I cannot account for the bizarre taxonomy of leprous houses (Leviticus 14:33-53) or leprous garments (Leviticus 13:47-59). If you can fit these cases into the schema, let me know! Nevertheless, the interpretation that the Levitical system isolates and elevates precisely those actions and circumstances that signify the wonder and mystery of life may overturn longstanding assumptions sometimes held about the Bible. Perhaps two lovers who just completed intercourse find themselves tamei not because sex is dirty but because lovemaking is exceptionally holy. Perhaps the Chevra Kadisha volunteer pours water over her hands not for the sake of wiping away the stain of death but in order to sanctify the act she has just performed.

In a culture such as ours, which tends to cheapen and commercialize the sexual act and sever it from its connection to commitment and covenant, which tends to deny the physical processes of illness and aging, and which relegates dying and death to the closet, we might do well to reinstate into our consciousness the reverence that predominates throughout the Torah for the miracle of the life force itself and the One who bestowed it.

Rabbi Brian Besser, ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010, serves Congregation Beth Shalom in Bloomington, Indiana.

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