Judaism: States of Being
Moshe KempinskiMoshe Kempinski, author of "The Teacher and the Preacher", is the editor of the Jerusalem Insights weekly email journal and co-owner of Shorashim, a Biblical shop and learning center in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Torah Portions of Tazria and Metzora continue the discussion of the laws of Tahara and Tumah , that is to say of “ritual purity and impurity”.
These concepts of Tahara and Tuma do not relate to what their English translations wrongly portray. These concepts have nothing to do with hygiene and personal cleanliness (Clean and Unclean). They also have nothing to do with powers of goodness as opposed to powers of evil (pure and impure). They also cannot be seen as some type of blot or physical manifestation that needs to be removed or cleansed.
They are concepts that can only be explained in picture form. Being Tahor is about being a potential vessel for the sacred and the holy, while being Tameh is about losing that potential. They represent a state of being.
This is especially obvious when we read the description of the contamination of a house;
"and the one to whom the house belongs comes and tells the kohen, saying, "Something like a lesion has appeared to me in the house," the kohen shall order that they clear out the house, before the kohen comes to look at the lesion, so that everything in the house should not become unclean. After this, the kohen shall come to look at the house.(Leviticus 14: 35-36).
Why would the kohen tell the people to take the items out of the house if it may be determined that the house was in fact Tameh. Obviously it only becomes Tameh after it was declared to be so by the Kohen ( the levitical priest) . Clearly again the state of Tumah is not a function of what we call “reality” but is rather a fragment of a spiritual state of being.
According to the Torah one incurs Tumah in one of the following ways; By contact with dead body ( tumat met),or by being present in a roofed structure containing a dead body. (tumat ohel).It is also a state resulting from contact with certain dead animals, like most insects and all lizards ( Leviticus: 11: 29 - 32).We see the same state of being after the birth of a child( ibid :13) or being on contact with certain bodily fluids that represent changes in the reproductive cycle( ibid:15).We see it most dramatically with the spiritual affliction called Tzaraat( ibid 13-14). What, then, do all these have in common?
We see that tumah is connected with death and decay. Such death and decay represents the opposite of holiness and spiritual growth. The most extreme example of this and therefore the most potent source of Tumah is the human corpse. That is also why various types of animal carcasses and certain types of insects that are connected to death and decay can transmit such spiritual impurity. In a similar fashion, certain diseases of the reproductive tract that cause decay are also sources of this state.
Yet that connection to death and decay is in fact a symptom and not the cause. The Kotzker Rebbe explains that Tumah can actually only set in when holiness departs. That is to say that many things and people in our reality have great potential to be filed with holiness. When that potential is lost, the state of lost potential is called Tumah.
That is the reason that one will never find the concept of Tumah or spiritual un-cleanliness ever being applied to anything that does not also have the potential for Tahara spiritual cleanliness. If does not have the potential to be a vessel of the sacred and the holy, then one can never fall into the state of impurity and Tumah.
Tumah , then is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality, and of our physicality. It is the result our dealing with specter of losing potential and the power to grow. Taharah, on the other hand, represents the reaffirmation of our connection to the infinite.
The Torah then instituted a period of time between these two phases in order to facilitate the spiritual re-affirmation. Our physicality, our mortality and our sense of insecurity can drag us into spiritual inactivity. The seven days following become an opportunity to confront that danger and to spend a period of time in contemplative re-affirmation.This then is culminated by entering into the rebirthing waters of the mikveh.
Only then can we emerge, empowered again ,to face the infinite potential of Divine spirituality,Hashem has placed in every one of us..
( le-refuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved)