Is it Possible to Make Sense of a Biblical Ritual? (Chok)

Texts and beliefs By Ed Greenstein 24th Jul 2015

The ritual of the red heifer is the only way to rid a person of ritual pollution (tum’ah) after the person becomes tainted by contact with a dead person. Although there are many forms of ritual pollution, the type derived from contact with a corpse is the most severe form. Such a person is purified (taharah) by means of a mixture made from the ash of the sacrificed red heifer, some additional components that reinforce its redness, and pure (freely flowing) water.

Curiously, the red heifer ritual entails a well-known mystery on account of a seeming contradiction: the people who handle the heifer—who burn it and collect its ashes—purify themselves prior to their activity, but they become tainted afterward.

As I have maintained, purity symbolizes life, which is what God favours, and pollution symbolizes death, which God abhors. The red heifer concoction, comprising a sort of enhanced blood (red-skinned cow blood plus reddish cedar wood and red dye), purifies the tainted person from the strongest form of pollution. Accordingly, if the most purifying matter purifies the most tainted of persons, why should it pollute the purified ministrants who handle the purifying stuff? It seems illogical.

midrash on the parashah (Bemidbar Rabbah, Hukkat 19:3) has it that the fabled sage, King Solomon, sought to comprehend the paradox, but could not. Solomon said: “I have understood all of these things, but the section about the red cow I researched, questioned and prodded, ‘I said: “I will get wise” but it is far from me.’”

The ancient rabbis (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 4) maintain that paradoxical thinking is characteristic of the deity, an alchemist who can transform the polluted into the pure. They begin by offering an interpretation of a verse in Job (14:4). The verse says: ‘Who can make the clean out of the unclean? No one!’

The rabbis read the word “lo ehad!” (No one!) as if it said “lo ehad?” (Not One?). In this reading, the verse exclaims that God can make the unclean clean: ‘Who can perform the illogical? Isn’t it the One, that is, the One who is unique in his world, the Master of the world?’ With this interpretation in place, the Pesikta writes: ‘Like Abraham from (his idolatrous father) Terah (the pious king), Hezekiah (from the pagan king), Ahaz (the hero), Mordecai from (his ancestor) Shimei (an adversary of David), Israel from the (heathen) nations, the World to Come from This World. Who could do it, who could command it, who could decree it? Isn’t it the One, isn’t it the One unique in the world?!’

The Pesikta continues in this vein with another three examples. All of these are examples of what the Sages understand to be creating purity out of impurity. And now to our own case.

We have learned in another place: ‘All those who handle the (red) heifer from beginning to end become polluted in their clothes—but the heifer itself purifies the polluted! But the Blessed Holy One says: “I have given an ordinance (hukkah), I have laid down a decree, and you are not allowed to violate my decree”—This is the hukkah of the teaching (torah) that Adonai has commanded”’ (Num. 19:2).

God lays down the law, and no justification or explanation is needed. The rabbis, as is well known, distinguish between a ‘judgment’ (mishpat)—a law for which you can find a reason or justification—and an ‘ordinance’ (hok)—a law for which there is no known reason. According to the Rabbis, the rite of the red heifer, which purifies the tainted and taints the pure, is a classic example—in fact the parade example—of an ordinance.

Nevertheless, modern biblical scholarship, coming as it does from a very different set of premises, should come to the opposite conclusion. In principle, it should be possible to find a rational explanation, a reasonable theory, for every law in the Torah.

We have at our disposal two kinds of tools: one is a comparison with what was done or legislated elsewhere in the ancient Near East—a tool that grows more powerful by the day by means of new discoveries and new insights; and the second is anthropological, and especially structural anthropological, analysis, which lays bare ideas and themes that find concrete expression in the search after the underlying principles of the law. Our understanding of ritual purity is especially indebted to the theory of ‘dirt’—or orderliness and disorderliness—developed by the British anthropologist Mary Douglas in her book Purity and Danger (1966). I am inclined to understand the alleged paradox of the red heifer with the aid of two models.

The First Model – Imagine the ashes of the red heifer and the purified individual who handles it as two sponges, soaked with water. Neither can absorb another drop. When the two sponges are brought into contact, water seeps out and they begin to empty. The ashes of the red heifer are pure in their very essence. Consequently, the person who is purified in order to handle the ashes is the party in the interaction that is diminished by the contact. One who cannot become any purer who comes into contact with pure essence must suffer a loss of purity—a depletion. In this conception of tohorah (ritual purity), it is not just the absence of ritual pollution but a positive condition in and of itself, like holiness.

The Second Model – Consider a person who ails from a certain disease and takes medication in order to treat it.  The medicine fills a lack or corrects a condition. Someone who does not have the ailment can be injured by the medication, for there is no lack to fill or condition to correct. The medicine cannot be absorbed without effect—the surfeit can cause damage.

Laws, especially ritual laws, carry meaning, and that meaning can be sought by investigation and thought. The tools of modern biblical scholarship—philology, literary study, psychoanalysis, anthropology, philosophy, and comparisons to other Ancient Near Eastern cultures—often allow us to better understand this meaning. And even in cases where they do not, they enable us to sharpen and better formulate our questions.

Ed Greenstein is Professor and Meiser Chair in Biblical Studies as well as Head of the Institute of Jewish Biblical Interpretation at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. This year he is also visiting senior fellow at the Herzl Institute, Jerusalem. This article is published on 

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