Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Petit Mort of Tumah - Reflections on Parashat Tazria 5774

A very dear elderly woman cornered me one Shabbat morning at kiddush. "I was taught from an early age that women are forbidden from ever kissing the Torah Scroll because we may have our period and be unclean."  She said it stoically, but the hurt of it lived in her eyes.

I confess that upon hearing this revelation, I almost choked on my pickled herring.

To those not steeped in the world of Talmud and Halachah, the concepts of "tumah" and "taharah" developed in this week's parashah are perhaps the most misunderstood in the entire Torah. A veil of superstition has enveloped these concepts, and it must be said that these misunderstandings have distanced many people from their Creator. It is a very, very deep and complex subject, and cannot possibly be adequately explained in a brief blog post. 

Daunted as I am by the complexity of the topic, I would nevertheless like, in the words of H.L. Menken, to 'unscrew the inscrutable' and attempt to offer a little clarity to this confused topic. So buckle your belts, here we go.

First, nomenclature: the word tumah (noun) or tamei (adjective) is usually translated into English as spiritually unclean/impure/defiled. Conversely, taharah (noun) or tahor (adjective) is rendered as clean/pure/holy. Here we encounter the heart of the difficulty; these English words carry with them connotations which simply do not exist in the Hebrew, so let's just agree that there is no good way to translate them. As we shall soon see, I shall propose an alternative framework with which to define these terms.

We have to begin our analysis of tumah/taharah by thinking about the concept of mitzvah/fulfilling the commandments of the Torah, and chet/violating or blowing off the commandments listed in Torah. Carrying out the commandments is positive and meritorious, and is the very definition morality and goodness, while violating them is the exact opposite. These concepts are crystal clear: mitzvah - good; chet - bad.

Having said that, I can think of mitzvot that by definition put us in a state of tumah, for example burying the dead. I can also think of mitzvot that can only be performed in a state of taharah, like bringing a Temple sacrifice. In fact, let's get all Cartesian here, and think of mitzvah/chet on a vertical axis and tumah/taharah on a horizontal axis like so: 

Since burying the dead is an act that is both a mitzvah and makes us tameh, that deed would be charted in the upper left quadrant. Bringing a Temple sacrifice would chart in the upper right hand quadrant. Murder would chart in the lower left. Get the idea? You could probably chart every mitzvah in the Torah in this way. 

Now let's take this idea one step further, as in our case of burying the dead. Gcd Himself commands us to perform this good deed, therefore Gcd is commanding us to enter a state of tumah, as it were. So if doing Gcd's bidding puts us in a state of tumah, how can tumah mean something dirty or defiled or unholy or impure?  It just can't be.

Unlike the vertical axis which represents good and evil, tumah and taharah refer to states of being. There is no perjoration attached to being tameh, nor is there any particular merit attached to being tahor. We make active choices to do good or evil, but in many cases, we are thrust into a state of tumah involuntarily. And unlike the good/evil axis, being tamei doesn't feel any different from being tahor.

Therefore, a more exact (if more clunky) rendering of tumah/taharah is a relative weakening/strengthening of our life force. OK...what the heck does that mean?

Just this: Gcd is the source of life, the eternal, constant vivifying force to all living beings. Thus Gcd is completely tahor. At the other extreme, the ultimate, mother-of-all-tumahs is a corpse. Death. The total absence of the vivifying life force and the polar opposite of both Gcd and everything godliness represents.

So where do humans fit into this scale? Somewhere in the middle. We cycle between states of tumah and states of taharah; that is the human condition. We are strong and then we weaken; we awake and then we must sleep. In fact, the Jew ritually washes his/her hands upon first arising to symbolize the "shaking off" of the tumah of nighttime, of the petit mort of surrendering our life force for a time while we sleep. But Gcd? The verse states: "Behold, the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps." Trying to avoid tumah is kind of like resolving to never sleep - it's just not possible for us lowly humans.

Why is a woman tamei after giving birth? Because the life that was within her is now external to her; she has experienced a relative diminution of her life force. And FYI: a man enters a mild state of tumah after a seminal emission, and for the same reason. It's not bad, it's not good; it just is. 

Women are not Calcutta lepers during their period; Gcd forbid anyone should harbor such a horrible misconception! Nor is there an ancient, backward  "blood taboo" in Jewish law, as pseudo-intellectuals would have us think. A menstruant is merely a drop less alive than before she shed an ovum, the potential of a new life. Again, it's not bad, it's not good; it just is. 

It is natural to desire life and eschew death, both physically and spiritually, as reflected in our innate yearning to connect with Gcd, our wanting to be tahor. But we are not angels, we are humans, and confronting our own mortality from time to time is part of the human experience. That is the objective reality of the state of tumah. And if you think about it, tumah is actually a gift - a time of refraction and introspection. Later, when the time is right, the Torah provides a means of restoration to taharah, allowing the cycles of our lives to begin anew.

The Torah Scroll is impervious to tumah, and both men and women share the common need to connect with Great Wellspring of Life. And so to my dear kiddush friend I say: Kiss Away.

Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment:

  1. Very clear explanation! Of course, you had me at "cartesian" :)