The second verse of this week’s parashah reads:
Speak to the children of Israel saying, “When a woman conceives seed and gives birth to a male, she will be ritually unclean for seven days” (Leviticus 12:2)
What is ritual uncleanliness – in Hebrew, tumah? In Temple times, it was produced by things like contact with a dead body, contact with a holy object, and bodily emissions of one kind or another. These days, given that we don’t have a Temple, the idea of ritual uncleanliness doesn’t have the same resonance.
According to Joseph Blenkinsopp, past president of the Catholic Bible Association, the rules are there to preserve the order and distinctness of the original creation. Any kind of bodily discharge was seen to be a violation of the human body. Hence, childbearing called for a ritual quarantine followed by ritual purification because of the discharge of the placenta, and the longer period of quarantine laid down for a female child was dictated by the child’s own (future) bodily discharges. So these ritual laws serve to inculcate in us a way of existing bodily in the world, rather than making us more hygienic.
The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847–1905), one of the last masters of Polish Hasidism, wonders why the laws about purification of the human body come after all the laws about kashrut we read last week in Parashat Shmini. Rashi explains that, just as the creation of humans followed the creation of animals, so the teaching about human purification comes after the teaching about clean and unclean animals.
It is a tradition in midrash that someone of merit is told, “You preceded all creation”, while one with no merit might be told, “Even this flea or this worm was created before you”. According to the Sefat Emet, humans embody the natures of all those creatures that are under us in nature’s hierarchy and that depend on us, as masters of the living world. This means that we exhibit both the basest corporeality and the loftiest spirit.
It is said that humans were created last in deed but first in the order of redemption. We are the ones who are supposed to benefit from the Messianic age, but it is also we who will ensure that these benefits trickle down to the animal and plant kingdoms. When we redeem all those who depend on us, we merit the place that awaits us – above all of them.
The Sefat Emet goes on to say that all of creation exists because it is needed for our sustenance – whether for food or for aesthetic purposes. Therefore, we contain something of the root of everything that exists. To put it another way, the animal and plant kingdoms are the body and we are the soul. That is why we had to be created last. In the same way, the Torah teaches us first about the animals and then about ourselves.
We might dismiss ritual cleansing as an archaic process that we no longer require. But when you understand why our ancestors did it, you might begin to understand how they saw themselves in the order of things – higher than the animals but still with some of their base qualities. Recognising that we evolved and became endowed with consciousness and a spiritual side might help us to understand our place in the natural world, and our responsibility for it.
Allan Myers is a chartered accountant. He began teaching at Edgware Masorti Synagogue and Gesher in 1988 and has a degree from Leo Baeck College in Hebrew and Jewish Studies.