The Power of the Red Heifer

The first time I really understood the power of the red heifer was when I read Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. A fantasy of Jewish power and of Jewish subjugation, the book creates a world in which the State of Israel was conquered soon after its founding, and the Jews were given sovereignty over Sitka, Alaska, as a Jewish state and haven, thereby losing “only” 2 million Jews in the Holocaust. Even the policemen in Sitka speak Yiddish. It’s in the style of pulp fiction, with organized crime and fast-talking tough guys.

It also features a red heifer. In the book, one of the aims of the criminal conglomerate is to produce a pure red calf, as outlined in this week’s Torah portion, Chukat: red hair all over, with not even a black hair present, never been yoked; never given birth or been milked. The red heifer, the Torah explains, is key to the ritual for purification after exposure to a dead human body. The red heifer must be sacrificed, burned to ashes, and those ashes mixed with spring water. Then, the mixture is sprinkled on the person in a state of death impurity on the third and seventh day of their impurity, after which they are ritually pure again. Only people in a state of ritual purity can eat the Passover sacrifice or perform the priestly duties of the Temple’s sacrificial system. The mixture can last for hundreds of years.

The thing is, this can only be done while the Temple stands (or the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert, before it). Maimonides teaches that only nine pure red heifers have ever been found from the time of the Torah through to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. A tenth one is prophesied to be found and sacrificed by the Messiah himself, heralding the Messianic era. Today, the entire Jewish people is considered to be in a state of death impurity because after the destruction of the Second Temple, there has not been the opportunity to perform the ritual of the red heifer. In traditional Jewish liturgy, there is a prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple three times a day.

I probably read this parashah as a kid and thought, “What an archaic, superstitious ritual.” But now I see that the red heifer isn’t just a funny cow sacrifice. Mythologically, it has become the key to unlocking Jewish sovereignty and the ability to purify the Jewish people today. So much so that earlier this spring, a group of Israeli Jews imported five Red Angus calves from Texas to Israel to be raised for this purpose. These cows now reside in Shiloh, guarded and carefully tended, with the intention that when the time is right, they might be sacrificed and used in this ritual. You can search YouTube for videos of these red heifers. Concerns are rising about these heifers inflaming the war.

Just writing this piece, I’m trying to be very careful in my wording, knowing how provocative the topic actually is. The Temple Institute, the Jewish messianic group preparing for the imminent creation of the Third Temple by crafting Temple instruments and garments, has declared at least two of the Red Angus cows to be kosher and unblemished and has shared their interest in seeing them sacrificed. For people like them, the falling dominoes set off by the red heifer go from purification ritual to readiness to serve in the Third Temple, to destroying the Dome of the Rock and building the Third Temple, to bringing about the coming of the Messiah. These five cows, the extreme believers would say, will bring about ultimate peace.

I can understand the appeal to some extent. Part of me was so taken with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and its vision of a totally Jewish society and the idea that if we could only find a red heifer and do this ritual, a just and fully peaceful version of the world would follow, one we can’t fully imagine. It’s also an intoxicating notion of power because the Third Temple would, in this conceptualization, mean Jewish sovereignty, a kind of power that the Jews have rarely had in our history. A kind of power in which we could fully protect ourselves from recrimination, from coercion, from slaughter.

So I’m not surprised that the red heifer has come back into the news in the last months. It is a shortcut to a time when this whole war is over. When peace abounds. When death impurity is purified and we can focus on the sacred. Without needing to really figure out the steps in between.

The problem is that would be putting the heifer before the cart, so to speak. There is no shortcut. There is no animal sacrifice on the Mount of Olives that will skip to the end of this story. A different kind of sacrifice is likely needed for two peoples to come together that have so many reasons not to. A lasting peace with dignity for everyone is something I can pray for three times a day, it should come speedily and in our times.

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