This week’s double parashah reflects a fundamental understanding of ancient Israelite religion – and we are not sure that we know what it is. Between parashat Tazria and parashat Metzora, we are presented for four solid chapters of VaYikra (Leviticus) with rules of what anthropologist Mary Douglas called “purity and danger” in her book of the same name.
The guidance presented by Torah in these verses (12.1-15.33) separates the tamey from the tahor, two categories that are unhelpfully translated as “pure” and “impure” when in truth the situation is more complicated than that. In her examination of the religious laws which include this as well that other famous duality of Jewish law (kosher or not), Douglas insists that we regard these ideas not with the dismissive superiority of moderns but with what I like to think of as a post-modern curiosity about that which is not yet understood. These ideas should be approached as “a shorthand summary of the categories of Israelite culture….taken as a whole and related to the totality of symbolic structures organizing the universe.” (Douglas, Natural Symbols, 60).
At a glance, even the most casual, it is not difficult to detect the ancient Israelites’ desire to keep the world ordered and coherent. One is always in either a state of being which is tamey or tahor. The activities and situations which cause one to be tamey are neither bad nor to be avoided, and they are not associated with sin. They include birth, death, sex, and food, among other basics of human life.
Most interesting is the requirement for “time out” in between the two states of being. For example: if one is in a state of being tamey because one has been ill with a contagious disease, one is required, for the good of the community, to be isolated for a specific time. When one is no longer showing signs, one is expected to return to one’s former place. In other parts of VaYikra the same rule applies to one who has been in the presence of death: one takes time away from the community, and then returns to one’s “normal” social existence.
One of the great gifts of Jewish tradition is its insistence that we take time to recover from our experiences, and that certain situations carry certain ordered and religiously-mandated responses. Since the effect of illness or grief is often to cause us to feel isolated, there is a simple logic to the ancient Israelites’ understanding that the sense of isolation might be acted out and respected. One is given a specific pattern of behaviors to follow to help one move through the experience, and its aftermath.
Since at the end of the “time out”, the Israelite is once again able to enter the sacred grounds and stand before G-d, we might understand one possible interpretation of the terms tamey and tahor to be “spiritually unready” and “spiritually ready”. Certainly we all feel the need sometimes to “take a break” from the community’s expectations of us – that might be our time of spiritual unreadiness. If so, what might be a relevant way for we moderns to move through the experience so that we can return to “normal”, and our beloved companions on our journey? Our ancestors went off alone into the wilderness (or at least a short walk away from camp); how can you in your own life make space for yourself so that your spiritual unreadiness is respected, moved through, and made ready?