I’m later getting this out to you than I’d hoped, but I’ve been dealing with a pantry moth infested pantry, plumbing issues, and a recalcitrant computer, all now dealt with satisfactorily.
The text concerns ritual impurity (tumah) that results from childbirth, tzara’at, and genital discharges. Some of the purification rituals for a metzora seem reasonable, e.g., (sliding scale, depending on means). Tazria begins with purification after childbirth. The rest of Tazria deals with tzara’at, a skin affliction (no, it’s not actually leprosy) and how it is diagnosed by a priest. Tzara’at can also manifest itself as reddish or green streaks in cloth, leather, and – now we’re getting into Metzora -buildings. Metzora further deals with purification rituals for tzara’at, including washing body and clothes, shaving head hair, isolation for a prescribed time, immersion, and offering up a burnt offering and bringing a sin offering. The text then describes tumah from normal and abnormal genital discharges and the subsequent purification rituals. The priest, while acting like a doctor in diagnosing tzara’at, does not cure the affliction, which is attributed to a moral failing, usually slander. He guides the individual through the process, with the ultimate goal of re-integration into normal society and activities.
Reactions to this text vary from distastefully concrete (“Eeew!” “Yuck!” and the like), to genuinely profound. Maimonides takes a generally concrete, rational approach (surprise): Purity systems being common in the ancient world, it was natural for the Israelites to enact one; he also brings up dirt and sanitation issues with regard to limiting access to the Sanctuary. Two years ago, I was curious as to whether there were any parallels to tzara’at diagnosis and purification in Mesopotamian or Egyptian medicine (not really). Regarding childbirth, as I summarized here last year,(see also my detailed comments), “Basically, childbirth, places in opposition miracle and filth, heaven and earthiness, purity (the baby) and impurity (the woman, as she recovers), life and death, resulting in the strongly positive and strongly negative vibes that come through in the rabbinical texts.“
But let’s get back to the matter Maimonides waved aside: what does any system of purity laws signify? A major authority on this is Mary T. Douglas, particularly her book, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, 1966 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul) (thanks, Stanley). According to Douglas, purity is all about boundaries. In last week’s discussion of kashrut, we noted interpretations that pointed to hygiene or some spiritual property to determine which animals are kosher. Douglas takes a cultural anthropological approach. As my friend Stanley wrote (thanks, Stanley) with regard to the classification of animals as kosher (e.g., totally land animal) or not (e.g., a land/sea animal), “Douglas argues that what is unclear and contradictory…tends to be regarded as ritually unclean: the unclear is the unclean. …. ‘Hybrid’ items, by virtue of cutting across cut –and-dried “clean” categories, thereby upset the established worldview and social order; as such, they are viewed as threatening, dangerous, “polluted’ and thus become TABOO.” It is all about boundaries, physical and politic/social.
Since Purity and Danger is not at my local library yet, let’s look at an article that describes her (and many others’) approach, “READERS GUIDE TO CLEAN/UNCLEAN, PURE/POLLUTED, AND HOLY/PROFANE: THE IDEA AND SYSTEM OF PURITY,” by Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J., University of Notre Dame. To cite Neyrey on Douglas, “The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious (Purity and Danger, 115)….What crosses the [boundary] is of great concern: strangers are always suspect. What flakes off of the body surface and what pours from its orifices are comparably of great concern…matter which is ‘out of place’ and so dangerous, even ‘unclean.’ …Douglas’ overriding concern is… what is communicated by this type of language? …Labelling things or persons ‘pure’ or ‘polluted’ serves to establish identity and maintain the group,… to include or exclude (Ibid., 133).… Or, concerning the significance of controlling bodily orifices, she says, “…when rituals express anxiety about the body’s orifices the sociological counterpart of this anxiety is a care to protect the political and cultural unity of a minority group. The Israelites were always in their history a hard-pressed minority. In their beliefs all the bodily issues were polluting, blood, pus, excreta, semen, etc. The threatened boundaries of their body politic would be well mirrored in their care for the integrity, unity and purity of the physical body, (Ibid., 124).”
Probably more than you wanted to know about purity and impurity, but at least not very yucky.
Signs Seen on Doors: (selected)
Sign over a gynecologist’s office: “Dr. Jones, at your cervix.”
In a non-smoking area: “If we see smoke, we will assume you are on fire and take appropriate action.”
On a maternity room door: “Push. Push. Push.”
At an optometrist’s office: “If you don’t see what you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place.”
In a podiatrist’s office: “Time wounds all heels.”
In a veterinarian’s waiting room: “Be back in 5 minutes. Sit! Stay!”
In the front yard of a funeral home: “Drive carefully. We’ll wait. ”
‘I must confess, I was born at a very early age.’ Groucho Marx
‘I was born by Caesarian. You can’t usually tell but whenever I leave my house I go out by the window.’ Steven Wright
Jane has a baby each year because she doesn’t want the youngest one to get spoilt.
She was a very busy woman. In fact she was too busy to attend the birth of her child.
If people work together in an open way with porous boundaries – that is, if they listen to each other and really talk to each other – then they are bound to trade ideas that are mutual to each other and be influenced by each other. That mutual influence and open system of working creates collaboration.