Purity-Impurity - A Code of Life and Death: Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5781

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Our double Torah portion contains the largest cluster of biblical ritual laws of purity and impurity. Being in a state of ritual impurity meant that people could not enter the sanctuary1 or handle sacred items such as sacrifices, terumah (priests’ portion), or sacred objects (such as appurtenances of the tabernacle). In biblical times, therefore, ritual impurity was a serious disruption of daily life. People would seek out purification and undergo the required rites to regain the state of purity as soon as possible.

With the destruction of the Second Temple, many of these laws became moot. Furthermore, most of the biblical ritual purification ceremonies (which involved sacrifices) were no longer available. Except for certain states of personal impurity, such as menstruation, most of these laws fell into disuse.2 Even awareness of the consequences of purity and impurity dwindled. Nevertheless, if one studies our two Torah portions one can see that there was a worldview and attitude to life embedded in those rituals. Through the opposing states of purity and impurity, the Torah points us toward both upholding life, as well as dealing constructively with the inescapable—but often shattering—incursion of death into our lives. This guidance is the burden of our parashah.

Leviticus teaches us to see that the forces for life and for quality of life are in binary opposition to the forces for death. The priests’ role is to help people identify the life forces and work with them, while identifying the forces of decay, dissolution, and death and resisting them. Purity and impurity is the code of life and death; or, better said: the code of life versus death.

Life—especially in a state of vitality—is always pure. In fact, no living animal can contract impurity except for humans. Death, on the other hand, brings on a condition of ritual impurity. The death of a human generates the highest state of ritual impurity because the death negated the most evolved life. Decay, dissolution, or processes that fail to create life are labeled impure. However, living people come into contact with death regularly, either when they are together with a person who dies, or when they come into contact with a dead animal. This firsthand encounter with death communicates to them the power, the inescapability, and finality of death. Their state of ritual impurity is a symbolic statement that they have been battered by their encounter with death and feel a weaker hold on life.

The Torah offers rites through which the person is purified, i.e. removed from the grasp of death. In the case of human death, the high intensity rite using the ashes of a Red Heifer is employed to purge them of the powerful anti-life effect they have absorbed. This rite—as the other purification rites for lesser forms of impurity—climaxes in immersion in a mikveh, a pool of living water, that is, water still connected to its natural source. Mikveh is a rebirth ritual. The person removes all their clothes and totally immerses in the water, a symbolic return to the womb. Then he or she emerges, purified, to new life.

Our parashah walks us through various experiences of becoming impure. The main types are contact with human corpses3 or animal carcasses (Leviticus 11:24-45), genital discharges (Leviticus 12:2-8, 15:1-33), or scale diseases (Leviticus 13-14). As Jacob Milgrom points out, the common denominator of these impure states is that they symbolize the presence of death.4 Corpses and carcasses manifestly communicate the reality of death. Genital discharge—be it a woman’s bleeding in menstruation or male emission of semen—represents the loss of life, the egg or semen.5 The scale diseases exhibit a wasting away of flesh which is a kind of death-in-life experience. In all three cases, the observant person is asked to acknowledge the encounter with death by not contacting or entering the realm of the sacred, which is the zone of pure life and manifest divine presence.6 Still, the priest who diagnoses scale disease and brings the purification sacrifice in all these types of impurity reassures the person that they need not “surrender” or stay in death’s grip. They can act to remove impurity through ablution and immersion in mikveh. They immerse in water, the womb of life, and are reborn to new, intensified life.

In all three types of impurity, the scenario is encounter with death, followed by withdrawal from the sacred, which represents life in all its intensity. These steps acknowledge the way that death (or consciousness of death) weighs on us and constricts our capacity to live. But this “retreat” (very much like the Shivah mourning ritual to this day) tells us to limit our recoil. During the ritual period, we build up the energy to resume living. The sacrifice and immersion experience draws us into the realm of the sacred, reminding us that God (and ritual) are with us spurring us on to re-engage in life. As devastating as death and loss of a loved one is in its impact, we are reassured that God and all the forces of the sacred are also powerful—and they are firmly on the side of life. They accompany us back into the work of expanding life in the world. That is, expanding the zone of holiness, where life is growing and dominant.

This individual experience of death and renewal of life brings us to the general worldview of Leviticus. There are two zones of living. The first is the sacred, which is all life. Jewish tradition teaches that if humans carry out their mission in partnership with God, some day the whole earth will be a zone of pure life. The other zone is the present state, the common7 where life and death are intermixed. In the interim, the sanctuary is an island of pure life in the midst of an unredeemed world where death is ever-present. God is manifestly present in the sacred in the zone of pure life but is also present in the common realm—although the Divine Presence there is obscured or hidden due to the presence of death. The collapse of meaning and the deep loss in death encounter make it hard to feel God’s presence, or to recognize the underlying ocean of life and growth in which all existence floats.8

Leviticus teaches us not to deny death or try to evade it by distraction or immersion in work or pleasure. Rather, we act every day to increase life and to extend it through our activities. This is our part in humanity’s long term project to make this world—the common—into a holy realm where life is triumphant and increasing. However, when mortality inevitably comes—in the form of death or its symbolic surrogates such as wasting disease—we acknowledge it. We temporarily yield to it. Then, in partnership with the priests and the realm of the holy, we reaffirm life in ritual and in life behaviors. Thus, we do our share in the ongoing task of improving the mundane, increasing life’s presence and turning the mundane into the holy.

We do not accept the common as fixed and unchangeable. Rather we embrace the mundane and participate in it, while all the time moving it toward the realm of the sacred. The mundane is not “secular,” or permanently flawed and incorrigibly flecked with death and failure. The mundane is the not-yet-holy. The human task is to make it holy.

POSTSCRIPT: In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death,9 Ernest Becker argued that our awareness and fear of death leads us to create civilization as a process of denial of death. Becker suggests that many pathologies are driven by the denial mechanism. This includes various forms of addiction including drugs to escape the anxiety in the face of death. Others try to ignore the issue by tranquillizing themselves through preoccupation with the trivial aspects of living. The most destructive acting out may be the “immortality projects” by which humans imagine they (or their handiwork) can find a permanent existence. On the one hand, this drive for immortality leads to the creation of much of civilization. However, often this drive turns into the megalomania of totalitarian movements of world transformation, or into bigotry, racism, wars, and even genocide, as world leaders deny their own mortality through mega-projects that, all too often, inflict suffering and loss of life and freedom on millions.

In a way, our Torah portions are offering a prophylactic to the phenomenon of denial of death. Death is acknowledged, incorporated into life—but is then matched and even overcome by constant modest acts of renewing life and building a realm of holiness. Each individual purification or renewal may seem puny by comparison to the vast sea of death and mortality. However, collectively, millions of acts of life affirmation, generation after generation, add up to a healthy and human scale building of life in this world.

1 An umbrella term that covers both the mishkan / tabernacle of the wilderness period and also the first and second temples in Jerusalem.

2 The laws of menstruation (niddah) are still operative in many Jewish communities today. Other areas of personal purity that outlived the Second Temple but are not practiced today include seminal emissions (ba’al keri) and being pure in order to eat priestly—and sometimes even normal—foods (some of our practices of hand-washing around meals are residual expressions of this system).

3 The laws for this encounter with ultra-impurity are actually in Numbers 19.

4 See Milgrom, Leviticus, Vol. 1, p. 733. This dvar Torah is inspired by Milgrom’s treatment of these Torah portions. See ibid, pp. 724-826.

5 Menstruation generates a week of impurity while the impurity from emission of semen is only for one day. I speculate that the disintegration of a woman’s egg generates a week of impurity because the egg takes a month to develop, whereas the semen (or the capacity to ejaculate semen) is renewed overnight, hence its loss generates a shorter term impurity.

6 See my essay on Parashat Tetzaveh, “On the Priesthood, Or: Holiness is Living in the Fullness of Life,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/priesthood.

7 Chol in Hebrew, often translated as the “mundane” or the “secular” realm.

8 Isaiah 25:7-8ff) compares death to a veil which blocks our ability to see the Divine Presence. When death is overcome the veil will be removed so all the nations can see life (in the bosom of God) as the true nature of existence.

9 Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (Free Press, 1973).

Texts Referenced

(כד) וּלְאֵ֖לֶּה תִּטַּמָּ֑אוּ כָּל־הַנֹּגֵ֥עַ בְּנִבְלָתָ֖ם יִטְמָ֥א עַד־הָעָֽרֶב׃ (כה) וְכָל־הַנֹּשֵׂ֖א מִנִּבְלָתָ֑ם יְכַבֵּ֥ס בְּגָדָ֖יו וְטָמֵ֥א עַד־הָעָֽרֶב׃ (כו) לְֽכָל־הַבְּהֵמָ֡ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר הִוא֩ מַפְרֶ֨סֶת פַּרְסָ֜ה וְשֶׁ֣סַע ׀ אֵינֶ֣נָּה שֹׁסַ֗עַת וְגֵרָה֙ אֵינֶ֣נָּה מַעֲלָ֔ה טְמֵאִ֥ים הֵ֖ם לָכֶ֑ם כָּל־הַנֹּגֵ֥עַ בָּהֶ֖ם יִטְמָֽא׃ (כז) וְכֹ֣ל ׀ הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עַל־כַּפָּ֗יו בְּכָל־הַֽחַיָּה֙ הַהֹלֶ֣כֶת עַל־אַרְבַּ֔ע טְמֵאִ֥ים הֵ֖ם לָכֶ֑ם כָּל־הַנֹּגֵ֥עַ בְּנִבְלָתָ֖ם יִטְמָ֥א עַד־הָעָֽרֶב׃ (כח) וְהַנֹּשֵׂא֙ אֶת־נִבְלָתָ֔ם יְכַבֵּ֥ס בְּגָדָ֖יו וְטָמֵ֣א עַד־הָעָ֑רֶב טְמֵאִ֥ים הֵ֖מָּה לָכֶֽם׃ (ס) (כט) וְזֶ֤ה לָכֶם֙ הַטָּמֵ֔א בַּשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ הַחֹ֥לֶד וְהָעַכְבָּ֖ר וְהַצָּ֥ב לְמִינֵֽהוּ׃ (ל) וְהָאֲנָקָ֥ה וְהַכֹּ֖חַ וְהַלְּטָאָ֑ה וְהַחֹ֖מֶט וְהַתִּנְשָֽׁמֶת׃ (לא) אֵ֛לֶּה הַטְּמֵאִ֥ים לָכֶ֖ם בְּכָל־הַשָּׁ֑רֶץ כָּל־הַנֹּגֵ֧עַ בָּהֶ֛ם בְּמֹתָ֖ם יִטְמָ֥א עַד־הָעָֽרֶב׃ (לב) וְכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־יִפֹּל־עָלָיו֩ מֵהֶ֨ם ׀ בְּמֹתָ֜ם יִטְמָ֗א מִכָּל־כְּלִי־עֵץ֙ א֣וֹ בֶ֤גֶד אוֹ־עוֹר֙ א֣וֹ שָׂ֔ק כָּל־כְּלִ֕י אֲשֶׁר־יֵעָשֶׂ֥ה מְלָאכָ֖ה בָּהֶ֑ם בַּמַּ֧יִם יוּבָ֛א וְטָמֵ֥א עַד־הָעֶ֖רֶב וְטָהֵֽר׃ (לג) וְכָל־כְּלִי־חֶ֔רֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר־יִפֹּ֥ל מֵהֶ֖ם אֶל־תּוֹכ֑וֹ כֹּ֣ל אֲשֶׁ֧ר בְּתוֹכ֛וֹ יִטְמָ֖א וְאֹת֥וֹ תִשְׁבֹּֽרוּ׃ (לד) מִכָּל־הָאֹ֜כֶל אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֵאָכֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָב֥וֹא עָלָ֛יו מַ֖יִם יִטְמָ֑א וְכָל־מַשְׁקֶה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִשָּׁתֶ֔ה בְּכָל־כְּלִ֖י יִטְמָֽא׃ (לה) וְ֠כֹל אֲשֶׁר־יִפֹּ֨ל מִנִּבְלָתָ֥ם ׀ עָלָיו֮ יִטְמָא֒ תַּנּ֧וּר וְכִירַ֛יִם יֻתָּ֖ץ טְמֵאִ֣ים הֵ֑ם וּטְמֵאִ֖ים יִהְי֥וּ לָכֶֽם׃ (לו) אַ֣ךְ מַעְיָ֥ן וּב֛וֹר מִקְוֵה־מַ֖יִם יִהְיֶ֣ה טָה֑וֹר וְנֹגֵ֥עַ בְּנִבְלָתָ֖ם יִטְמָֽא׃ (לז) וְכִ֤י יִפֹּל֙ מִנִּבְלָתָ֔ם עַל־כָּל־זֶ֥רַע זֵר֖וּעַ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִזָּרֵ֑עַ טָה֖וֹר הֽוּא׃ (לח) וְכִ֤י יֻתַּן־מַ֙יִם֙ עַל־זֶ֔רַע וְנָפַ֥ל מִנִּבְלָתָ֖ם עָלָ֑יו טָמֵ֥א ה֖וּא לָכֶֽם׃ (ס) (לט) וְכִ֤י יָמוּת֙ מִן־הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־הִ֥יא לָכֶ֖ם לְאָכְלָ֑ה הַנֹּגֵ֥עַ בְּנִבְלָתָ֖הּ יִטְמָ֥א עַד־הָעָֽרֶב׃ (מ) וְהָֽאֹכֵל֙ מִנִּבְלָתָ֔הּ יְכַבֵּ֥ס בְּגָדָ֖יו וְטָמֵ֣א עַד־הָעָ֑רֶב וְהַנֹּשֵׂא֙ אֶת־נִבְלָתָ֔הּ יְכַבֵּ֥ס בְּגָדָ֖יו וְטָמֵ֥א עַד־הָעָֽרֶב׃ (מא) וְכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ שֶׁ֥קֶץ ה֖וּא לֹ֥א יֵאָכֵֽל׃ (מב) כֹּל֩ הוֹלֵ֨ךְ עַל־גָּח֜וֹן וְכֹ֣ל ׀ הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עַל־אַרְבַּ֗ע עַ֚ד כָּל־מַרְבֵּ֣ה רַגְלַ֔יִם לְכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵ֣ץ עַל־הָאָ֑רֶץ לֹ֥א תֹאכְל֖וּם כִּי־שֶׁ֥קֶץ הֵֽם׃ (מג) אַל־תְּשַׁקְּצוּ֙ אֶת־נַפְשֹׁ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם בְּכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הַשֹּׁרֵ֑ץ וְלֹ֤א תִֽטַּמְּאוּ֙ בָּהֶ֔ם וְנִטְמֵתֶ֖ם בָּֽם׃ (מד) כִּ֣י אֲנִ֣י יְהוָה֮ אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֒ וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם֙ וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אָ֑נִי וְלֹ֤א תְטַמְּאוּ֙ אֶת־נַפְשֹׁ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם בְּכָל־הַשֶּׁ֖רֶץ הָרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (מה) כִּ֣י ׀ אֲנִ֣י יְהוָ֗ה הַֽמַּעֲלֶ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְיֹ֥ת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִ֑ים וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אָֽנִי׃
(24) And the following shall make you unclean—whoever touches their carcasses shall be unclean until evening, (25) and whoever carries the carcasses of any of them shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening— (26) every animal that has true hoofs but without clefts through the hoofs, or that does not chew the cud. They are unclean for you; whoever touches them shall be unclean. (27) Also all animals that walk on paws, among those that walk on fours, are unclean for you; whoever touches their carcasses shall be unclean until evening. (28) And anyone who carries their carcasses shall wash his clothes and remain unclean until evening. They are unclean for you. (29) The following shall be unclean for you from among the things that swarm on the earth: the mole, the mouse, and great lizards of every variety; (30) the gecko, the land crocodile, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon. (31) Those are for you the unclean among all the swarming things; whoever touches them when they are dead shall be unclean until evening. (32) And anything on which one of them falls when dead shall be unclean: be it any article of wood, or a cloth, or a skin, or a sack—any such article that can be put to use shall be dipped in water, and it shall remain unclean until evening; then it shall be clean. (33) And if any of those falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be unclean and [the vessel] itself you shall break. (34) As to any food that may be eaten, it shall become unclean if it came in contact with water; as to any liquid that may be drunk, it shall become unclean if it was inside any vessel. (35) Everything on which the carcass of any of them falls shall be unclean: an oven or stove shall be smashed. They are unclean and unclean they shall remain for you. (36) However, a spring or cistern in which water is collected shall be clean, but whoever touches such a carcass in it shall be unclean. (37) If such a carcass falls upon seed grain that is to be sown, it is clean; (38) but if water is put on the seed and any part of a carcass falls upon it, it shall be unclean for you. (39) If an animal that you may eat has died, anyone who touches its carcass shall be unclean until evening; (40) anyone who eats of its carcass shall wash his clothes and remain unclean until evening; and anyone who carries its carcass shall wash his clothes and remain unclean until evening. (41) All the things that swarm upon the earth are an abomination; they shall not be eaten. (42) You shall not eat, among all things that swarm upon the earth, anything that crawls on its belly, or anything that walks on fours, or anything that has many legs; for they are an abomination. (43) You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through anything that swarms; you shall not make yourselves unclean therewith and thus become unclean. (44) For I the LORD am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth. (45) For I the LORD am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy.
(ב) דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר וְטָֽמְאָה֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת דְּוֺתָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא׃ (ג) וּבַיּ֖וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֑י יִמּ֖וֹל בְּשַׂ֥ר עָרְלָתֽוֹ׃ (ד) וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים יוֹם֙ וּשְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים תֵּשֵׁ֖ב בִּדְמֵ֣י טָהֳרָ֑ה בְּכָל־קֹ֣דֶשׁ לֹֽא־תִגָּ֗ע וְאֶל־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ֙ לֹ֣א תָבֹ֔א עַד־מְלֹ֖את יְמֵ֥י טָהֳרָֽהּ׃ (ה) וְאִם־נְקֵבָ֣ה תֵלֵ֔ד וְטָמְאָ֥ה שְׁבֻעַ֖יִם כְּנִדָּתָ֑הּ וְשִׁשִּׁ֥ים יוֹם֙ וְשֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים תֵּשֵׁ֖ב עַל־דְּמֵ֥י טָהֳרָֽה׃ (ו) וּבִמְלֹ֣את ׀ יְמֵ֣י טָהֳרָ֗הּ לְבֵן֮ א֣וֹ לְבַת֒ תָּבִ֞יא כֶּ֤בֶשׂ בֶּן־שְׁנָתוֹ֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה וּבֶן־יוֹנָ֥ה אוֹ־תֹ֖ר לְחַטָּ֑את אֶל־פֶּ֥תַח אֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד אֶל־הַכֹּהֵֽן׃ (ז) וְהִקְרִיב֞וֹ לִפְנֵ֤י יְהוָה֙ וְכִפֶּ֣ר עָלֶ֔יהָ וְטָהֲרָ֖ה מִמְּקֹ֣ר דָּמֶ֑יהָ זֹ֤את תּוֹרַת֙ הַיֹּלֶ֔דֶת לַזָּכָ֖ר א֥וֹ לַנְּקֵבָֽה׃ (ח) וְאִם־לֹ֨א תִמְצָ֣א יָדָהּ֮ דֵּ֣י שֶׂה֒ וְלָקְחָ֣ה שְׁתֵּֽי־תֹרִ֗ים א֤וֹ שְׁנֵי֙ בְּנֵ֣י יוֹנָ֔ה אֶחָ֥ד לְעֹלָ֖ה וְאֶחָ֣ד לְחַטָּ֑את וְכִפֶּ֥ר עָלֶ֛יהָ הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְטָהֵֽרָה׃ (פ)
(2) Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity.— (3) On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.— (4) She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. (5) If she bears a female, she shall be unclean two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days. (6) On the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. (7) He shall offer it before the LORD and make expiation on her behalf; she shall then be clean from her flow of blood. Such are the rituals concerning her who bears a child, male or female. (8) If, however, her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. The priest shall make expiation on her behalf, and she shall be clean.
(ז) וּבִלַּע֙ בָּהָ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה פְּנֵֽי־הַלּ֥וֹט ׀ הַלּ֖וֹט עַל־כָּל־הָֽעַמִּ֑ים וְהַמַּסֵּכָ֥ה הַנְּסוּכָ֖ה עַל־כָּל־הַגּוֹיִֽם׃ (ח) בִּלַּ֤ע הַמָּ֙וֶת֙ לָנֶ֔צַח וּמָחָ֨ה אֲדֹנָ֧י יְהוִ֛ה דִּמְעָ֖ה מֵעַ֣ל כָּל־פָּנִ֑ים וְחֶרְפַּ֣ת עַמּ֗וֹ יָסִיר֙ מֵעַ֣ל כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ כִּ֥י יְהוָ֖ה דִּבֵּֽר׃ (פ)
(7) And He will destroy on this mount the shroud That is drawn over the faces of all the peoples And the covering that is spread Over all the nations: (8) He will destroy death forever. My Lord GOD will wipe the tears away From all faces And will put an end to the reproach of His people Over all the earth— For it is the LORD who has spoken.