Tazria and Metzora deal specifically with the rituals for separating the “impure” from the community, and the many, many details of purifying and readmitting them. From this viewpoint, Tazria and Metzora are disturbing and seem to offer little food for spiritual uplift.
Yet, they do provide for a path from impurity to purity, and from isolation to a new opportunity for communion with God. While those should certainly be occasions for Hoda’ah [Gratitude], why does the Torah even need to establish conditions of purity and impurity and what do they signify?
Biblical Scholar and Theologian Dr. Benjamin Sommer teaches us to understand this by adjusting our definitions of Tum’ah [Impurity] and Taharah [Purity]. Recall that Tum’ah is not about filth, even though “unclean” is one popular translation of this word. We must stop assuming that the Book of Leviticus disapproves of the state of ritual impurity. In fact, Tum’ah results from natural and mostly unavoidable causes: menstruation, childbirth, sexual activity, and death. Tum’ah is actually brought about by living a life of mitzvah. The first commandment is to be fruitful and multiply – impossible without having sex and giving birth!
At the other extreme, tending to a dead body is among the greatest of mitzvot; yet contact with a dead body creates the most profound degree of Tum’ah. Thus, Tum’ah, or ritual impurity, does not carry any moral charge or imply any misbehavior, although it does make one ineligible to enter the Mishkan. Why should that be?
Dr. Sommer believes that the answer lies in the theology of ancient Israel; particularly in its startling departure from the normative theology of the surrounding cultures. When we credit ancient Judaism with the invention of monotheism, we imagine a denial of other gods. Dr. Sommer suggests instead that the Shema’s assertion that “God is One,” is not insisting that the God of Israel is the only God, but rather that Israel’s Adonai is unique.
The great scholar of ancient Judaism, Yehezkel Kaufman, put it this way:
“The biblical religious idea . . . is of a supernal God, above every cosmic law, fate and compulsion; unborn, unbegetting, knowing no desire, independent of matter and its forces . . .an unfettered divine will transcending all being.”
The contrast between this description and the other Gods of the ancient world could hardly be greater. The Gods described in the contemporary religious traditions are much like us humans. They are born. They are sexually active. They even die (as do Baal, Tiamat and Chronos).
As Dr. Sommer reminds us, the God of Israel “is different from all other Gods.” The God of Israel:
- was never born,
- never has sex,
- never gives birth, and
- never dies.
Thus, we see that the main causes of Tum’ah relate specifically to the elements of human life that God never experiences. A key feature of all these causes of Tum’ah, ritual impurity, is that there is nothing blameworthy about them. Leviticus is not teaching us that they are BAD, but only that they are essentially UN-GODLY – and therefore, one who has just had these experiences is in no state to walk into God’s house.
Dr. Sommer explains that an exhaustive set of rules governing when and how we enter God’s house has one more message for us: even though God has chosen to dwell among us, God remains transcendent. We can come close to God, but only on God’s mysterious terms.
Rabbi Jan Uhrbach brings an additional insight when she presents the Kotzker Rebbe’s reading of a Talmudic passage from Ta’anit 2a:
“Rav Yochanan said: three keys remain in the Holy Blessed One’s own hand and have not been entrusted to any messenger, namely, the key of rain, the key of childbirth, and the key of revival of the dead.”
For the Kotzker, this passage tells us that at the moment when a woman gives birth, “a higher holiness rests there.” God is present in an intensified way. The presence is withdrawn as the child emerges into the world and “Tum’ah is born.” A similar metaphysical process occurs at the instant of death when holiness is withdrawn resulting in Tum’ah. When these events occur, human experiences (ones that God never has) have an impact upon the world that God created, and we become aware of our partnership with the Divine in a way that is rare. But then, this special closeness ends, and “normal” life resumes.
For Rabbi Uhrbach, the Kotzker has shown us that this “letdown” is the space in which Tum’ah is born. “Tum’ah,” Rabbi Uhrbach suggests, “is the psycho-spiritual letdown after a heightened experience of holiness, which in turn creates a vulnerability—perhaps to negativity or sin, or disaffection and doubt.” This presents a possible reason for the temporary exclusion from the Mishkan of the Tam’ei. We need to readjust to “everyday” holiness and recommit to seeking heightened closeness to God. Perhaps our intense experience of God’s presence makes us temporarily unable to appreciate the holiness of the tabernacle and its ritual. Perhaps we doubt that we will ever feel so close to God again. We need some time to regain our equilibrium.
For students of Mussar, the ever-present tension between the Yetzer haRa and the Yetzer haTov also plays a role here. Many of the experiences that result in Tum’ah are specifically the most self-centered of all the activities in which humans ever engage. No mother in labor is thinking about bearing the burden of another. Her own burden requires 110% of her attention and energy. While these experiences ALSO seem to bring us an intense sense of closeness with God, it is easy to wonder whether an inward focus (rather than a focus on the other) may be the better way to seek that connection. Tazria and Metzora help us see that this idea is a spiritual form of Tum’ah. We need to take the time to think, and to purify our intentions. We need to recall that being of service to those around us, the community that awaits our rededication to acting in accordance with our Yetzer haTov, is the true path for drawing nearer to God.
Carolyn Moore Mooso is the Director of Education at Temple Sinai of Glendale, a Reform congregation in Southern California. She has held that position for more than 30 years, and is in the enviable position of seeing students who grew up in her school bring their own children to get their Jewish education in the same setting. She has an MA in Jewish Education from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (and an honorary doctorate from the same institution), and has been studying Mussar for about seven years. She is excited to be reading Mesillat Yesharim for the third time and still finding something new on every page.