Tumah, Taharah, and Torah as Fire - Parashat Tazria

The concepts of tumah and taharah, ritual impurity and purity, can sound uncomfortable to our modern ears. They sound to many of us like ‘bad’ and ‘good’. It is bad to be impure; it is good to be pure. However, there’s something a little more complex than that in the Torah’s concepts of tumah and taharah. I will remind you, for example, that contact with a dead body brings a person into a state of tumah, of ritual impurity - and it is a mitzvah, a religious obligation, to care for the deceased. Therefore, it cannot be the case that tumah (ritual impurity) is bad and taharah (ritual purity) is good. So what are these categories for, if not distinguishing the good from the bad?

This week’s parashah has been concerned with two experiences that bring an individual from a state of taharah (ritual purity) into a state of tumah (ritual impurity): tzara’at, the mysterious skin affliction, and childbirth. The Torah does not tell us what these people have in common, but it becomes clear when we see the list of experiences that can make someone tamei (ritually impure) that it has something to do with mortality. Rav Soloveitchik characterises these statuses as being about death. He claims that we have these statuses in order to differentiate ourselves from traditions that are obsessed with death; Jews, instead, are obsessed with life. However, the statuses of tumah and taharah are almost entirely about the Temple - they are about our eligibility to enter into the Temple or Tabernacle courtyard. While Rav Soloveitchik’s theory does a nice job of tying the experiences of ritual impurity together, it doesn’t give us a framework for understanding the practical outcome of being in that state. One comes close to death, and is changed by that experience - that much, I’m on board with. But why can that individual not enter into the Temple courtyard?

It is clear in the work of Nechama Leibowitz that she also found these explanations unsatisfactory. Leibowitz’s work is mostly a compilation of commentaries, especially medieval commentaries, on the Torah - she very occasionally adds her own ideas. This week’s parashah, Parashat Tazria, is a rare example. Leibowitz spots an issue in the text regarding the new mother. The issue is this: after her period of tumah, the new mother is to bring two sacrifices to the Temple: an olah (a burnt offering), and a ḥataat (a sin offering). But there has been no sin. Why should she offer a sin offering? How does this fit into the idea that being tamei (ritually impure) is about contact with mortality? 

Finding no help in the commentaries of the men who came before her, Leibowitz took the text of the new mother in a different direction. 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. 

In order to explore why this shift might come with a ruling against entering into the Tabernacle or Temple courtyard, I would like to take a step back and remind us of how we got here. The Torah is currently discussing tumah and taharah in all of its many varieties. And those descriptions, which last two and a half parshiyot, are an abrupt interruption of the narrative of the Torah. The interruption came just after the story of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, in the Tabernacle. When we finally turn back to the narrative, in a few weeks, it will be with the words ‘Aharei-Mot’ - after the deaths of Aaron’s sons. This section about tumah and taharah is a clear break in the text. 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 die in the Tabernacle. All the Torah tells us is that they bring an ‘alien fire’, something that wasn’t commanded, and then they die. But why does that result in their deaths? There are as many answers to that question as there are commentaries on the Torah - more, even, as one particular commentary I looked at had six different reasons! I would like to bring one understanding before you: the explanation of Philo of Alexandria. Most commentators are not particularly warm to Nadav and Avihu on this matter, but Philo understands that Nadav and Avihu brought their unscheduled offerings out of religious fervor, 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, too close to experience of divinity. 

Philo’s explanation of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu cast an interesting light on the Torah’s decision to turn immediately to the rules around tumah and taharah. When we apply this to Nachama Leibowitz’s understanding that being tamei, being in a state of ritual impurity, 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 you are at a period of life that is the most raw, when you have had an experience that intense, stay away from the Holy of Holies or you might end up like Nadav and Avihu. Those moments in which we are the most raw are the moments in which we are at risk of having religious experiences that are dangerous. Being in a state of tumah is a protection against having too intense an experience of the Divine. 

But today, we largely don’t exist in those spheres. Without a Temple, we only have symbolic rituals left to remind us of tumah and taharah - washing hands before eating bread, and immersing ourselves in the mikveh. If almost none of this applies today in halakhah, in Jewish religious practice - how does this play out in our lives? 

I believe that this plays out in the balance of religious life. The rabbis in Sifrei Devarim (343:14), a midrashic commentary from somewhere around the year 400, compare the Torah to fire. Go too far from the fire, they say, and you will be left in the cold; but come too close, and you will be burnt. So too with the Torah. The rabbis warn against abandoning the Torah, but they also warn against getting too close. 

This is the challenge of religious life, especially in the modern era. It is easy to embrace secular life at the expense of the Torah, and our tradition. But the Torah won’t survive that way. The Jewish people won’t survive that way. The wisdom of our tradition, the connection to the Divine, cannot be relevant to our lives if we don’t allow it to be. 

 It is likewise easy to embrace a religious life and sequester ourselves away from the rest of the world. But this is how religious fervour becomes extremism - and the longer we choose the ghetto, the less relevant our tradition is to the world around us. 

Those are easy choices because they do not demand any nuance. A black-and-white world is a much simpler world to live in. Nevertheless, both options come with their danger. Too far from the fire, or too close.

 It is much harder to maintain a balance between the two. But the rabbinic endeavour, the last two thousand years of Jewish history, has been about attempting to do both. To be in relationship with the world, and to be in relationship with God. To learn from our tradition, and to apply it to the ever-changing circumstances around us. To keep the Torah by holding onto her, and not letting her be lost to history; and to keep the Torah alive by allowing her to be relevant to the world. We don’t want to be Nadav and Avihu, who fall due to their unhealthy fervour; but we also don’t want to be Pharaoh, who turns away from the voice of the Divine. 

The truth is that I cannot tell you how to do both. It is an ongoing conversation that I, too, have with myself - especially as someone who would not be standing at this podium without both Torah and modern feminism. I will, however, suggest that we should all occasionally recalibrate, look at the way that we live our lives and wonder: how can I apply Torah to my life, and how can I apply my life to Torah?


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