What Does “Purity” Mean?

Back in rabbinical school (now over fifteen years ago), I had to spend one summer as a hospital chaplain to do one unit of clinical pastoral education. By definition, the hospital is a place filled with diseases, germs, and various infections, so it was drilled into us to wash and disinfect our hands constantly. But the importance of maintaining cleanliness can cut both ways. As the chaplaincy director said, if you’re going to be sanitizing in front of the patient, make sure you do it before going into a patient’s room, and also let them see you wash your hands beforehand. It wasn’t (just) to stop the spread of pathogens – it was a sign of respect to the patient.

How so? Well, if you simply walk into a patient’s room, meet and talk with them, and then wash your hands right afterward, there could be a perception that you’re “washing away” that interaction. But if you sanitize going in, they’d be more likely to understand that you’re simply trying to avoid getting sick or spreading a disease, and it would also feel like it’s a new interaction. It would be a sign of welcoming, while simply washing your hands afterward could feel like a dismissal.

Subconsciously, we tend to link physical and moral purity, but they’re not always linked.

That’s a big reason that this week’s double portion, Tazria-Metzora, is so challenging. It’s all about ritual purity, something most of us don’t consider on a day-to-day basis. With its discussion of skin diseases, menstrual periods, and coloration and discoloration of flesh, it’s much more arcane than other portions that talk about “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” or “In God’s image did God create humanity.” 

As modern readers of the text, our natural inclination is to create a more spiritual explanation of these rules – tzara’at, the skin disease that creates discoloration, is often interpreted as being about the consequences of slandering others, for example. Even in 2020, as this portion’s discussions of quarantine and containing the spread of disease became more relevant, we still tried to make this portion about Covid and the problems of isolation rather than the specific causes and impact of tzara’at. But we can’t ignore the concrete ritual and physical questions in this portion because it’s through our bodies that we mediate the world. We need to deal with bodily fluids. We live in our skin. 

And so it’s crucial to remember that the rules of “purity” aren’t necessarily the same as “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad.” Menstruation or seminal emissions, giving birth, skin diseases, or touching a dead body are part and parcel of the natural world. Without a doubt, there are negative consequences to tumah, ritual impurity that arises from these bodily actions, and an offering had to be made because of it, even if the tumah was natural or unintentional. A person with tzara’at needed to be examined and, if required, isolated. And so we tend to get uncomfortable when there appears to be a punishment for a person who didn’t do anything wrong.

But that’s the wrong way to look at tumah – it’s not a punishment. It’s a different moral category from the usual ones we focus on in the West, such as caring for others and fighting for fairness. As noted by psychologist Kurt Gray, “purity” is often culturally-defined, not always obvious, and may not even be a clear, coherent psychological construct. That’s why it’s so important to not take these laws of ritual purity and use them to make blanket statements surrounding “right” and “wrong” or trying to determine what the “sin” was that led to a “punishment.” The laws of purity are their own collection of laws with their own consequences. And at the same time, we need to recognize that, even if we don’t want to, we are likely to conflate ritual and moral purity. That’s why, in our chaplaincy (back in 2005), washing our hands right after an interaction with a patient in front of them could have been viewed as more than just avoiding contagion – it could be seen as an insult. And that’s because these rules of purity and impurity are part of every challenge we face in our society – how we balance the rights of the individual with the needs of the community. We want to treat everyone with kindness and respect, and we also want to keep ourselves and others safe and healthy. 

At times, those values can be in conflict. But rather than ignoring the rules that we don’t like or don’t agree with, the first step is understanding their context – and how they play themselves out not just in theory and in our minds but in practice and in our physical bodies. 

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