Holy Taboo

Rabbi Ezra Weinberg

Rabbi Ezra Weinberg

Parshat Metzorah

Can something that is taboo somehow be holy?

Taboos are everywhere, even in the Jewish community. The interesting thing about taboo subjects is that you often don’t realize they are taboo until you start talking about them. And sometimes you don’t even realize something is taboo until you go through it yourself.
Here is one example: I never realized that divorce was taboo in the Jewish community until I got divorced myself. More often than I could have predicted, I experience an almost allergic reaction to the topic, the equivalent of treif. A lot of people don’t want to talk about it — which is a succinct definition of taboo.

The Torah, on the other hand, is not shy about diving into matters we might consider taboo. The book of Leviticus was extremely deliberate in handling matters outside the bounds of what was acceptable within the community.

In the sacrificial system, which was an ancestor to Hebrew prayer, ritual objects, as well as people, were assigned two possible statuses: Tahor and Tameh, which roughly translate as pure and impure. Or as we might say today, kosher and treif.

These designations are a significant reason these chapters are referred to as the Holiness Code. These chapters helped clarify the idea of holiness, a divine trait that humans could access. This leads me to question where the intersection was between Tahor and Tameh? Between holiness and taboo? Do seemingly opposing designations have underlying features and threads of connection? Parshat Metzorah helps make a link!

Repetition in the Torah, no matter how subtle, clues us to something interesting in the text. In one specific ritual in Metzorah, the repetition is not subtle.

Parshat Metzorah describes the final stage of purifying someone who has been contaminated by Tza’ra’at — a scaly skin disease. After being exiled for seven days and ritually cleansed and deemed fit to rejoin the community, there is one more final purifying ritual. It says, “The priest shall take the blood of the guilt offering and put it upon the tip of the right ear of the affected, the thumb of the right hand and upon the toe of the right foot.” (Lev 14:14)

This purification ritual is almost an exact repeat of a ritual six chapters earlier. In parshat Tzav, it is Moses who places the blood on Aaron and his sons. And where does he put it? Also on the tip of the right ear, the thumb on the right hand and the big toe of the right foot! (Leviticus 8:23-24)

Same ritual, different context. In this case, this is not a ritual to cleanse the unclean through contagious skin disease. This is the final initiation rite for Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. Virtually the same ritual. The former for welcoming back the most defiled while the latter for consecrating our most holy.

By using the same rite of passage, one could argue the Torah is demonstrating an unusual bond between Tahor and Tameh. We usually think of them as repellent ideas that are fundamentally in opposition.

But what if we made space to see them as inextricably linked? The Torah does just this. Through this blood-centric ritual, the most outer circle, the contaminated sick, is linked to the most inner circle, the holy priesthood. I do not believe this is an accident.

The idea of holiness has to be more than simply a status differentiating itself from impurity. I like to imagine holiness as a divine quality that we have only just barely glimpsed. Perhaps holiness exists as a continual invitation to transformation. For us today, what if we could see the potential for holiness in something that is taboo, a modern-day version of what we used to think of as impurity? How might injecting some holiness into an experience rife with shame and social avoidance shift our perspective?

The good news is that our tradition already does this. Circling back to the example of divorce, the ritual of a get is considered a holy act of transformation in Judaism. As a Jewish community, we relate certain life events such as birth, marriage, death, conversion and even divorce as elevations in holiness.

Holiness is not a concept reserved for the most pure among us. Holiness, and the associated rituals, is expansive enough, as we see in Metzorah, to include even those outside the camp

Rabbi Ezra Weinberg is a Philadelphia-based rabbi and a practitioner of conflict transformation. He is the founder of ReVoice: A Journey of Discovery for Jewish Families After Divorce. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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