Torah Portion: Living in an Impure Society

This commentary is from last week’s Torah portion, but owing to my preoccupation with my cousin’s wedding, I was unable to post it until today.  Apologies. SIR.

Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at http://sotah.net/.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.

There is an interesting element in the keeping of kosher that is forgotten in our contemporary practice. Not only could the Jews not eat the non-kosher animals, but they also could not touch their carcasses.

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“You shall not eat of their flesh nor shall you touch their carcass – they are unclean to you.” Leviticus 11:8.

The text demands that we avoid entering the state of impurity. Becoming impure is not a neutral state.

Rashi limits the scope of this prohibition — to times when a person is visiting the temple during holidays — because purity is required for admittance and to bring sacrifices at the temple. In limiting the application of a purity law, Rashi is struggling with the livability of “purity.”

The one vestige of the purity system still practiced is the ritual impurity attached to menstruating women (“family purity”), which can be “cured” by going to the mikvahs after the menstruation ends.

The contemporary experience with family purity may shed some light on what it was like to live in a world of purity law, and why it was important to Rashi to limit the reach and significance of purity laws.  There is a spiritual and intellectual price to being “impure.”  I once attended a class taught by a woman who practiced family purity; she suggested improving the meaning of the practice for contemporary women by changing the words “pure” and “impure” to some other more neutral word.  Impurity; however, is not neutral, it is negative state of separation from your community and even perhaps from God. Because it is one thing not to be able to go to the temple — because you live a week’s journey from the temple — and it is another matter entirely to be prohibited from entering because you are impure.