Laws of What and Who Are Pure and Impure



When we read the double portion of Tazria-Metzora, it is easy to fixate on all the gory details of eruptive affections, white swellings and greenish streaks that the portions describe so meticulously. Our immediate reaction is "yuck." These yucky things throw us into a state of tamei, which is translated as "unclean" or "impure."

We tend to think of purity as good and impurity as bad. However, in the priestly system of our portions, they are just two different states of being. Anyone might enter into a state of impurity due to a physical event in his or her body. A woman is impure for a time after childbirth, a man after a seminal emission, and anyone who contracts a certain rash or sore. Tahor ("pure") and tamei ("impure") require different rules, but they are both states people easily move between.

In our lives, we are never in one state of being for very long. We are in and out, constantly changing due to external and internal circumstances. The conditions that cause impurity in the Torah portion are physical, but for us today, they may also be emotional, psychological or spiritual. Humans are sensitive creatures, affected by our environment — the weather, the news, the emotions of those around us and those we love. We are constantly changing state, and this affects the people around us, too.

Furthermore, we are both social and individual. We are in and out of the community all the time, and it's not healthy to be entirely isolated or entirely social. We seek balance between being alone and being with other people. In the same way, there may be periods in our lives when we want to be more social, as well as times when we need to withdraw to gain a different perspective.

Neither of these states is permanent. Nor is the transition between them automatic. It is gradual, marked by ritual in our portion. The person who has been tamei must offer a sacrifice before she becomes tahor. The leper undergoes an elaborate ritual of being sprinkled with blood and water by a branch of hyssop before he can re-enter the camp. He does not do this alone — the priest comes from the community, acting as a link to the greater community and helping him transition back into it.

These different positions — pure and impure, in and out of community — are natural and frequent, but they do require attention and recognition. It is the community's responsibility to keep the person who is outside the camp connected through a figure such as the priest. In order for her to re-enter, the community must be there to welcome her back in. When the person who has stepped outside does come back in, it must be marked by ritual.

In Judaism, all liminal moments have their rituals. We light candles at the beginning of Shabbat and we make Havdalah at the end to mark the transition between weekday and Shabbat time. Although we no longer perform the priestly rituals of Tazria-Metzora, we learn from them that when individuals in our community are in a different emotional, physical or spiritual state, they may need some time outside the camp. They will also need to stay connected, and they may want to recognize the transition back into community with a ritual.

May we honor all the different states that we are in, and know that our community is there for us both when we are in it, and when we are temporarily out.

Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. E-mail her at: [email protected]


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