Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Birth, Purity, and Impurity
Rabbi Yuval Sherlo
The Midrasha for Women
Early Jewish exegetes were greatly concerned to translate the concepts of purity (tahorah) and impurity (tum’ah) into humanly comprehensible terms, since striving to understand Scripture was, in their view, one of the fundamentals of Torah study. Their recognition that the Torah contains commandments that we must simply accept without understanding them (mitzvot shim’iyot) did not curtail their efforts, since the number of such commandments is quite limited, and what is more, many of the inexplicable commandments have a broad foundation in the world of rational thought, and only part of the laws stemming from these mitzvot belong to the realm of the inexplicable. Some of their efforts were directed to matters of purity and impurity – a field of inquiry occupying extensive tracts of the Written and Oral Law. Among the better-known rational explanations is that given by Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed 3.47):
All this is reason to
keep one’s distance from the
Or, the earlier explanation given by Saadiah Gaon (Ha-Nivhar be- Emunot u-ve-De’ot 3.2):
Among the advantages of the laws of purity and impurity are that a person humble himself in his own eyes, that prayer become more dear to him after a hiatus of several days, that sacred things be more highly regarded after a period of abstinence, and that a person be given to a sense of awe.
Yet Saadiah wrote elsewhere in his book that the laws of purity and impurity have their foundation in statutes (hukkim, i.e., those laws not given to our comprehension; see Ha-Nivhar be- Emunot u-ve-De’ot 6.4):
As for keeping distance from things unclean and impure, we say to him that the human body has no impurity in it, but is entirely pure; for impurity is not something tangible or something demanded by our intelligence. Rather, the Torah demands it; the Torah declares impure some of our human vitality after it has issued from the body, but does not declare them impure when in the body. But if someone were to lay down commandments for us devised of his own mind, and impose on us strange things, we would not accept them.
One of the rational explanations of the laws of purity and impurity is found in Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi’s teachings. This in spite of his basic position that the concepts of the Torah cannot be translated into human rationality. This point of view is illustrated by the parable of the fool and the physician, in the beginning of the Kuzari (Part I, 79), where the Law-Giver is compared to a physician, and the person who thinks he can comprehend its foundations through his own intellect, to a fool. This is not merely a declarative position taken by Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi; rather, this approach finds expression in his interpretation of the reasons for the commandments. Wherever Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi attempts to explain the reason for a particular commandment, he adds certain reservations, as in his treatment of the laws of sacrifice (Part II, 26):
I do not, by any means, assert that the service was instituted in the order expounded by me, since it entailed something more secret and higher. ( Schocken edition, p. 106)
In his treatment of the question of purity and impurity, Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi also added reservations, as noted here, before getting into a deeper discussion of purity and impurity (Schocken edition, p. 120):
The Rabbi: I told thee that there is no comparison to be made between our intelligence and the Divine Influence, and it is proper that we leave the cause of these important things unexamined. I take, however, the liberty of stating – though not with absolute uncertainty – that leprosy and issue are occasionally the consequence of contamination by corpses. A dead body represents the highest degree of malignancy, and a leprous limb is as if dead. It is the same with lost sperm, because it had been endowed with the living power, capable of engendering a human being. Its loss, therefore, forms a contrast to the living and breathing.
This is not merely a question of interpretation. Indeed, Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi claims that it has empirical support (ibid.):
Experience has taught them that their touch deteriorates such fine things as pearls and wine. Most of us feel influenced by the vicinity of dead bodies and graves, and our spirits are depressed as long as we find ourselves in a house in which there is a corpse. Those of coarser mould remain untouched.
Even if we find it difficult to accept what he claims as empirical, nevertheless the spiritual element of distancing oneself from death as a rationale for the concept of purity and impurity is highly significant. This explanation fits well with many commandments in which the Torah cautions against association with the dead: one may not convoke the dead or practice necromancy, etc. The Torah reveals itself to be a teaching of life, seeking to prevent the natural inclination, common in other religions, to retire from the living and connect with the dead.
This natural inclination stems from the constant aspiration to connect with the sublime and the transcendent. A dead person might be perceived as a means of forming such a connection, since on the one hand he is here in this world, yet on the other hand his soul has returned to its source. Thus the proscriptions about purity and impurity keep human beings away from contact with death. This explanation stands to reason and can certainly be applied to impurities that issue from the human body: the impurity of menstruation originates from non-fertilization, and likewise for the impurity of male discharge. Even the impurity of the leper becomes quite clear, for in the story of Miriam’s leprosy the Torah itself attests that the leper was thought of as a dead person. But the subject of a woman’s impurity after childbirth, with which this week’s reading begins, might appear to contradict this explanation, since birth and the impurity of the woman after birth are diametrically opposed to death.
This difficulty can be explained as follows: life and death are bound up one with the other. In a world which is entirely good there is no death, but neither is there life (as we know it). The Torah expresses the fact that light and shadow depend one on the other and are inseparable one from the other. The story of a person’s death is also the story of his life; for as soon as a person enters the cycle of life, death is at his heels. This idea can be found in the writings of the Sages (Genesis Rabbah ): “And behold, it was very good (Gen.1:31) – that is the angel of death.”
Thus the constant attempt to keep away from death and the fact that the Torah is a teaching of life do not contradict the deep recognition that death is bound up with our existence from the moment we come into being – an idea that is expressed in the impurity associated with a woman after childbirth. It is hard to find a more precise description of the life cycle in which we find ourselves, when the moment of bringing new life into the world and rejuvenating the Jewish people requires us to acknowledge the existence of death in the world and at the same time to cling to the world of life.