In this week’s parashah, Tazria-Metzora, we read of the conditions that make one exist in a state of tumah (often translated as impurity) and detailed step-by-step instructions on how to enter back into tahara (a state of purity). These parashot detail the intricacies of this transition in several specific situations: after giving birth, after being afflicted by tzara’at (scaly affliction), after handling the dead, and after experiencing a discharge from one’s sexual organs. Sex, disease, death, infection—these all may conjur up images of dirtiness, secrecy, shame. It is all too easy to look at the commandment to give a hatat, translated as “sin-offering,” as proof that these conditions do in fact render one “impure” or “unclean”—replete with the negative connotations associated with these English terms.
But these are later judgements—certainly of the rabbinic sages, and likely our own as well—that have been imposed on the text. Dr. Baruch Schwartz, biblical scholar and annotator of the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh translation, notes that the matter-of-fact manner with which these conditions are detailed must indicate that they were considered a natural and normal part of life. He explains in his commentary that “Unlike similar notions found outside the Bible, ‘tum’ah’… is not created by or connected with evil spirits or malicious deities. Neither is it the same as modern notions of dirt or filth, or of infection. Rather, it is a simple fact of life, a part of nature.” (JPS Tanakh Commentary, pg. 232). For Dr. Schwartz, it is the tangible reality of the human condition juxtaposed to that of the Divine that creates this very divide— this necessity to separate the tameh and the tahor.
While Dr. Schwartz’s understanding of the neutrality of these terms helps us put this parashah in context, the challenging question remains: if tumah and tahara are neither positive nor negative states, why is it forbidden for one in a state of tumah to enter the mishkan, to meet God in God’s dwelling? Did the ancient Israelites fear that the tumah would somehow transfer to and afflict God? Was there deep-seeded concern that the scaly affliction or bloody discharge was actually a sign that one was not only ritually impure but morally impure as well?
Next week we’ll read Parashat Kedoshim, in which God will declare to the Israelites: “Kedoshim tihiyu; ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheikhem.” “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am Holy.” (Leviticus 19:2). Kodesh can mean holy, and it can also mean separate. Perhaps we must engage in separation at times for the sake of our own holiness. Just as God is holy, so too are we holy, complete with our natural bodies and physical realities. Perhaps it is the creation of a “rite of passage,” as Dr. Schwartz describes these purification rituals, that allows us to be holy in a way that deeply differentiates ourselves from the holiness of God.
In this moment of uncertainty, fear, and isolation, may we glean from these texts an openness to viewing our own physical acts of separation as rites of passage as well—rituals to bring ourselves closer to our own human holiness and to the holiness of the Divine.