Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Impurity and Oddity

Last night we discussed two odd portions in Torah class from Leviticus, Tazria and M'Tzora. These portions, and most of Leviticus, are about the duties of the Priestly class as regards purification rituals in the temple. The first of these was about afflictions of the skin translated as "leprosy," but which are not really leprosy as we know it, but mold or any skin ailments, from rashes and allergies to whatever. The priest's job is not to cure these afflictions, but to make sure that the people in the community will not contaminate the temple. The idea is that if their affliction spreads to the temple, since they believed that objects and not just people would be contaminated, God would not make himself manifest in the temple anymore, so the priest had to guard carefully against any agents of contamination, and isolate them.

I have spoken before about how menstruation is one of these contaminants, and so is any bodily fluid leaking in an unseemly way from an individual, whether it be semen, fluids indicating a disorder such as a venereal disease, etc. Anything smacking of death to these ancients was a contaminant. Ironically, semen and menstrual blood are related to death, because they represent the death of potential life. For the fluids of life to become mixed with things related to death, such as corpses or dead meat, is contamination. That is why kosher meat is cooked well done (no exceptions!) till it is as hard as shoe leather, or otherwise becomes stewed, in pot roast, for instance. Rare meat is not kosher.

These books discuss the impurity related to childbirth. After giving birth to a boy, the mother must stay away from the temple for a certain period, and also away from the father, who must not have sex with her until her period of contamination is over--for one thing, she is bleeding for at least part of that time, and sex during menstruation is verboten. After the birth of a girl, however, the mother must stay away from the temple for twice as long! The commentators say that this is because the baby's hormones may cause her to have bloody discharge, but this is by no means certain. It sure looks like the text is saying a baby girl is more impure than a baby boy is. But, at any rate, the mom probably appreciated the opportunity to rest and to bond with her new baby. Cooking or touching items in the house proper is not permitted, so she does get a sort of vacation.

As far as skin eruptions go, the contaminated individual also had to isolate himself for a given period and not, by any means, enter the temple. He had to offer sacrifices, wash himself and his clothes, and sometimes shave off all his hair. We marveled at the number of elaborate rituals required not only of the afflicted individual but of anyone who came into contact with him or his belongings, and wondered at how, in the desert, the community could manage to wash itself this number of times.

It is true that in Europe, the Jewish community did not die anywhere near as often of the plague as the rest of the population, probably due to these purification rituals and the custom of isolating those who were ill. So I guess these obsessive rituals came in handy and preserved us, but they prompted one practical-minded member of the group to wonder whether the Levites were prone to inherited OCD, so obsessive and detailed were these rituals and the concern with purity.

The leader of the group pointed out that these sections of the text were written by the Priestly writer, whose job it was to justify the existence of the priestly caste and invent jobs for them to do. Certainly these books succeed at that, if nothing else.

The amazing thing was not only the response to people with skin eruptions, who had to walk through the street with their faces covered calling out "Impure! Impure!" so others would stay away from them, but the information about inanimate objects, such as houses, that were afflicted with "leprosy." These could be emptied of belongings and people, scoured thoroughly, replastered, and then reinhabited, or torn down and burned. In one passage, God says that God is the source of this affliction, which was, a commentator suggested, a means of indicating moral impurity that had gone unrecognized or unacknowledged.


Lou said...

Fascinating. Out of the urge to make sense and stay alive come rituals. I love these entries.

Robbi said...