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Parashat Metzora

April 8, 2008

By Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman

Someone once said, only half in jest (paraphrasing the well-known Rabbinic dictum in Pirkei Avot), that “Whoever manages to give a decent derashah about Tazria-Metzora brings redemption to the word.” And indeed, one is hard to imagine any section of the Torah more alien to the modern world, than these two parshiyot, devoted entirely to the detailed description of various kinds of ritual impurity issuing from the human body. Parashat Metzora, specifically, is concerned with the ritual to be performed for one healed of tzara’at (“leprosy”: i.e., certain skin effusions described in the previous parashah); tzara’at of houses; and various discharges, normal and abnormal, from the sexual organs of men and women.

What are we to make of all this? One explanation put forward in recent years (first articulated by Rachel Adler in the first volume of the Jewish Catalog
in the early ’70’s; the ideas show the influence of the work of such anthropologists as Mary Douglas and Claude L’vi-Strauss) sees the central theme of tum’ah as the human encounter with various manifestations of mortality, and the consciousness of the vulnerability and transience (what the Christian Scriptures call “corruptibility”) of ones own body. Thus, tum’ah is ultimately connected with death and mortality: whether through birth or sexuality (the spilling of seed, containing the germ of life); menstruation (in which the life-giving potential of a particular month’s ovulation has been missed); the deterioration and corruption of the body experienced in disease, such as tzara’at (“leprosy”) and zivah (presumably gonorrhea); and, ultimately, contact with death and dead bodies, referred to by the Sages as avi avot hatum’ah, the ultimate source of impurity.

Purification from tum’ah is affected through water, a universal symbol and source of cleansing and purification; life-giving (in biblical thought, water is sometimes pictured as fructifying a field in much the same way as the male impregnates the female; e.g. in Isaiah 55:10), ever fresh and renewing itself (i.e., spring waters or mountain streams), as well as dissolving and washing away all in its path.

When I first encountered these concepts in my youth, I was taught to think of tum’ah largely as a formal, halakhic category. Tum’ah was the opposite or absence of toharah, that state of ritual purity required to enter the Temple precincts and to partake of certain priestly foods. Indeed, the negative dialectic of tum’ah and Mikdash is neatly expressed in a verse towards the end of our portion-“You shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die (!) in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst” (Lev 15:31). Today, on the face of it, there is no need for toharah, as, in any event, we neither eat kodashim (sacred things) nor enter the Temple Mount. Moreover, in the absence of the ashes of the red heifer, we are all formally considered ritually impureanyway.

Yet, upon further reflection, it seems clear that toharah is a desirable religious
condition, while tum’ah is seen as a reprehensible state. Thus, the Haverim, the early Sages in the generations during and immediately following the destruction of the Temple, strove to conduct their ordinary, mundane life activities in a state of toharah. In like fashion, many contemporary Hasidim immerse in the mikveh, the public ritual bath, every morning so as to achieve the maximum degree of purity before beginning their morning prayers.

I look at these phenomena with mixed feelings. On the one hand, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “halakhic man” would see this as an exaggerated, unnecessary preoccupation with things one is not obligated to do. A psychological perspective might add that this may reflect an inability to come to terms with ones corporeality, or even see it as a form of obsessive behavior. On the other hand, it seems to me to express a genuine striving for spirituality. As one grows older, one sees how much of ones life is consumed, either by bodily lusts and desires, on the one hand; or by the corruption, the inevitable deterioration and aging of the body, on the other. The desire to transcend all that, at least symbolically, is somehow understandable.

But the concepts of tum’ah and toharah are not only part of the activity of “world construction” in terms of the physical world, but are also used in a moral sense.

Sexual immorality and idolatry are portrayed, in Leviticus 18 and in the book of Ezekiel, and elsewhere, as contaminating the land itself. A particularly powerful prophecy-read as Haftarah just two weeks ago, for Parashat Parah-contains the phrase “And I shall pour upon you pure water, and you shall be purified of all your uncleanness and from all of your idols I will purify you. And I shall give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, and I shall remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:25-26).

In this verse, surprisingly,
“flesh” is the locus, not of tum’ah, but of the toharah God desires.