Rabbi René Pfertzel, 15 April 2016
The use in History of categories such as “pure” and “impure” to divide human beings between “worthy” and “unworthy” has shown its deadly outcomes. Jews were segregated according to a supposedly racial inferiority. A French historian, Georges Bensoussan, published in 2006 a book called “Europe. Une passion génocidaire. Essai d’histoire culturelle (Paris, editions Mille et Une Nuits)”. He claims that Hitler built upon a long-standing anti-Jewish hatred, particularly with regard to the racial and blood-related arguments. He reminds us of the limpieza di sangre – the “purity of blood”, a certificate proving that any person who wanted to serve the Spanish crown had to bring, back to the 16th century, when no Jews were in Spain anymore. One had to prove that for five generations, no Jewish or Moorish “blood” was in the lineage. Anti-Semitism is, as he says, a “European passion”. Closer to today, thousands of people were killed in the early 1990’s in the former Yugoslavia in the name of “ethnical cleansing”.
These categories of “pure” and “impure” date back to the Bible, more precisely to the Book of Leviticus that created clear boundaries between what was pure (tahor) or impure (tamei). Needless to say, the intentions of the Biblical authors were far from the ways they were used later on.
The priestly author of the Book of Leviticus marks the collection of laws in chapters 11 – 15 as a digression from the general flow of the book. The author examines first some laws concerning food, the dietary laws in chapter 11. Then, he contemplates the impurity caused by childbirth (chapter 12), followed by skin eruptions and related diseases (13-14), and finally bodily emissions (15). In each case, a clear distinction is made between a state of ritual purity and the causes of ritual impurity. It is possible to regain purity by performing certain rituals in the Temple of Jerusalem.
These laws embody exactly what distinguishes us from God: we must take in sustenance in order to live, and we must reproduce to keep humanity going. Inevitably, we experience physical corruption, and death. On the contrary, God does not require food. The unity and eternity of God precludes reproduction. Finally, being incorporeal and eternal, God does not suffer from physical corruption.
Ritual impurity comes about through normal physical processes, illnesses, or simple acts of daily life. In a way, one may say that it is impossible to avoid ritual impurity. Sacrifices are meant to restore a state that was distorted by the contact between something pure and impure. They mark the boundaries between what is appropriate, and what is not. Nothing more. It is a bit like making the distinction between what is kosher and what is treif. Over the centuries, these distinctions became the measure of sin despite the Rabbis who never considered impurity as a sin. The sin consists in bringing into contact the tamei (the impure) and the kadosh (the sacred). Entering the Temple in a state of tu’mah (impurity) is a sacrilege, as the tamei is brought into contact with the kadosh. It is as if these two states are carrying a sort of spiritual energy that is incompatible. Eating pork is a misguidance, a mistake, or a choice if kashrut means nothing to you; bringing pork into the Temple, as the Greeks did, leading to the festival of Hannukah, is a sacrilege and a sin that have to be repaired.
With the fall of the Temple, these laws ceased to be operative, as the Temple was the only way to regain purity. Parshat Metzora describes in great details the procedure to be followed by the priest to establish a state of purity or impurity. He first listens, then he questions, and finally pronounces the result.
The question is: Why do we keep these texts when the Temple is no longer there? The destruction of the Temple invalidated these categories. What is left for us is the awareness that our actions have consequences, and also that it is possible for us to mend our ways through ritual acts. There is a process, a procedure to follow, based on clear instructions. Ours are now the ethical values taught by our tradition. There are no priests anymore, as this category also disappeared with the Temple, and we are all personally and collectively responsible for our actions. Being pure today could be understood as being faithful to our ethical heritage, and when we are declared impure, it is because we crossed some moral boundaries. Performing rituals helps us to be aware of the ways laid down by our tradition. One of its most powerful teachings is found in the Chapters of the Fathers, the Pirke Avot 2:4 “Hillel would say: do not separate from your community. Do not believe in yourself until the day you die. Do not judge your fellow until you stood in his/her place”. The rest is commentary – go and learn!
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