Tazria: Staying Outside the Temple Gates
Staying Outside the Temple Gates
This week, I have spent time with two women whose thoughts and ideas are permeating my experience of our Torah portion. The first, Kerry, has been my best friend since before we can remember. Kerry is now Doctor Kerry, and her field of medicine is paediatrics. She spends her days (and often nights) in the NICU - the neonatal (or newborn) intensive care unit. Kerry’s babies are often just a couple of pounds, dwarfed in comparison to full-term newborns, and facing the fight for their lives. The second of these women is Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, my guest in the Salon last week. Rabbi Debbie joined us to talk about the Wellspring Project, the building of a centre of wellbeing with mikveh - waters for ritual immersion - at its heart. Mikveh is not commonly used outside of the orthodox world anymore, with the exception of conversion to Judaism. The reasons for this are varied, but are mostly related to two things: off-putting experiences in orthodox mikva’ot for those who fall outside the orthodox norm, and - more widely - a sense that the origins of mikveh practice are outdated at best.
These two women and their experiences are very close to me as I encounter this week’s Torah reading. The parshiyot we are currently reading through are the Torah’s deep-dive into tumah and taharah, sometimes translated as ‘impurity’ and ‘purity’. Over this week’s parashah, Tazria, and next week’s, Metzora, we encounter multiple experiences in which a person is deemed tamei (‘impure’), including illness, childbirth, menstruation, and other bodily emissions. It is my experience that many people read these parshiyot and see an ancient system playing out that is meaningless at best, outdated in its perspective, and potentially deeply offensive. It is indeed ancient and elements are, in a sense, outdated. The statuses of tamei and tahor are really about when someone can enter the Temple. Without a Temple to enter or stay away from, there is little impact.
As for the concepts being meaningless or outdated in outlook: I believe the Torah presents a system that may not be usable in a world without a Temple, but does hold great religious and emotional depth. And I want to attempt to frame this today using the case at the beginning of the parashah. The case is this: when a woman gives birth, she enters the status of tumah. When that is completed - which takes longer for birthing a girl than a boy - she is able to enter the Temple courtyard again, and she gives offerings. One of those offerings is, unexpectedly, a ḥataat (sin) offering.
There are three questions on this case that I want to address, and three different thinkers I want to bring to the table.
My first question is this: what is the relationship between childbirth and tumah? I have thus far been translating tumah and taharah for us as ‘impurity’ and ‘purity’. But I think it’s time to shed the translation, because it is more harmful than helpful. Tumah kept us from entering the Temple. We might gain this status through childbirth, healthy and unhealthy bodily emissions, or particular illnesses. We also learnt just last week about tumat meit, tumah through interaction with the dead. What binds these experiences? In his work ‘Halakhic Man’, Rav Soloveitchik describes tumah and taharah as being related to death. These experiences of tumah are all, in some way, related with mortality - either through coming close to one’s own mortality or the mortality of others, or through the potential for life inherent in bodily cycles and emissions. Rav Soloveitchik argues that these statuses exist because Judaism is preoccupied primarily with life, and rejects the reverence for death found in some other traditions.
My second question is about the ḥataat offering, the sin offering, that the new mother is expected to bring to the Temple. What is the ‘sin’, and how does this fit into the idea that being tamei is about contact with mortality? After laying out and rejecting the many ideas found in the commentaries who came before her, Nechama Leibowitz connects the law of the new mother with the story of the Prophet Isaiah and his vision of the heavenly court. Upon witnessing the angels declare ‘kadosh, kadosh, kadosh’ (‘holy, holy, holy’), Isaiah proclaims: ‘Woe to me, for I am undone; for I am a man of tamei lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of tamei lips; for my eyes have seen the sovereign, the Lord of Hosts.’ Isaiah’s experience of holiness is so radical that he is brought to painful awareness of his place in the universe, his status as dust and ashes. For Leibowitz, it is not only the brush with mortality that defines the experience of the new mother, it is a radical shift in consciousness. The new mother brings a ḥataat offering not due to a new sin, but due to a new awareness. According to Leibowitz, then, the status of being tamei need not only be about contact with death - rather, it is about the paradigm shift that occurs when we touch the edges of what it means to be human.
And finally, why is this text here? For two and a half parshiyot, the Torah is interested in tumah and taharah, but this comes as a very abrupt interruption to the narrative of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, in the Tabernacle. Incidentally, the day in which Nadav and Avihu died is understood to have been Rosh Chodesh Nissan - this day, thousands of years ago. When we finally turn back to the narrative, in a few weeks, it will be with the words ‘Aḥarei-Mot’ - after the deaths of Aaron’s sons. Nadav and Avihu die in the Tabernacle, and then we stop to discuss how contact with mortality affects our relationship with the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple). But I will remind you that we don’t really know why Nadav and Avihu met their end. All the Torah tells us is that they bring an ‘alien fire’, something that wasn’t commanded. But why does that story go so wrong? Most commentators are not particularly warm to Nadav and Avihu on this matter, but Philo of Alexandria understands that Nadav and Avihu brought their unscheduled offerings out of religious fervour, to the most intimate place for experience of God, and their connection with the Divine was so intense and raw that they transcended their bodies. They died because they came too close to holiness.
Philo’s explanation of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu casts an interesting light on the Torah’s decision to turn immediately to the rules around tumah and taharah. If we understand that being tamei is about a radical shift in consciousness that occurs on the edges of mortality, the rule against entering into the Temple courtyard finally makes sense. The rule is now this: When someone is at their most emotionally and spiritually raw, that is the appropriate moment for comfort and love, for family and prayer, and it is not the appropriate moment for intense and transcendental religious experience. Those moments of rawness are moments of vulnerability. The story of Nadav and Avihu is a story of how religious mania can sweep people away from the world, and religious leaders are also unfortunately capable of using religious experience as a weapon against the vulnerable.
These frameworks of tumah and taharah are, I think, protective categories. They might not have much practical application in a world without a Temple, but they do hold within them incredible truths about human religious and emotional experience. They hold within them a sense that the vulnerable must be protected, not just from things which we would deem ‘outside’, but also from the possibility of abuse within our walls and within our experiences of the Divine. And they remind us of the importance of looking out for and looking after ourselves and one another.
Shabbat shalom v’chodesh tov.