We have spent a good bit of time exploring the general topic of sacred space - what it has been in our tradition, what it might be for us in our own time, the important purposes it serves as part of our relationship with God, and how and by whom or what it is administered.
Today we begin a chapter on Divine guidance that initially speaks to ways we are to be and ways we are not to be when we encounter God in sacred space. We’ve looked at these issues when we took our journey through Torah last year. Now we’ll focus on them more directly and in greater detail.
Now, many - whether Christian or liberal Jew or any other kind of person who does not feel bound by the text – do not follow these mitzvot literally. Others feel bound to the text in certain ways with respect to those of the mitzvot they deem applicable. As usual, we will not get into the differences between these and other groups. Our work will be to dive to deeper levels to find meaning in God’s word that helps guide our lives, whatever differences we may have as to how exactly we read the text, or whether or how we live by its literal requirements.
The Idea of Purity in the Bible
Before I get into the idea of purity in the Bible, let us get a baseline of our thinking on this matter.
What does purity mean to you? In the context of religion, especially in the context of holiness, what does it mean? What does it consist of? Is it achievable in any way, and, to the extent it’s achieved, what does it do for us in our relationship with God and others, and in the world?
(Discussion - I do not like the word, purity, as a way of beginning this discussion, and regret that I’ve put it in your mind. But, if we know we’ll need to refine our understanding as we proceed, the word does suggest certain things of value. We’ve talked extensively about ways, influences, ideas, temptations - often bad, but not always - that lead us away from the way of God. One could say that they distract, debase, contaminate, or dilute our being true to God. It was in our discussion of idolatry, you’ll recall, when we covered this most extensively. In a word, one could say that much of that inappropriate behavior leads us to be impure.
But the Bible, as we’ll come to understand in our new study, isn’t just concerned about action that leads us to idolatry. It’s also concerned about action that, while perfectly legitimate, distracts or confuses or improperly mixes with experience of the sacred, and thus does not fit with sacred encounter.
Let me make one other comment before we get into a more specific introduction of this chapter. I know you may have in your mind certain verses from the New Testament - especially from Matthew and Mark - that appear to differ from some of the ideas we will discuss in this chapter. I want you to know and be confident of two things: 1) There also is text in the Prophets that poses challenges to these ideas, or at least to the way they are applied, and 2) We’ll devote some time to both the Jewish and the Christian challenge when we get to the kosher rules, in an upcoming lesson in this chapter.
Relationship of Purity to Holiness
To sum it up at the start: God gives us these mitzvot of purity not merely to have more rules to follow, more mere rituals to practice. As we know and will discuss more fully, when these mitzvot are followed merely ritually or hypocritically, it actually angers the Divine. God guides us with these mitzvot because they help us, if we understand them and follow them in their true spirit, in our seeking to be holy, by infusing holiness in both the encounters we have in sacred space as well as when we move out into the ordinary moments of our everyday lives.
At the deepest level, they teach of holiness per se. In being mindful of them and doing them, we practice holiness. And in the self-control they engender and in the discipline of following them, we prepare ourselves to become the holy nation God calls us to be.
We will talk first about ways of being that are appropriate and ways that are not as we experience sacred encounter. Our Bibles have made the horrible mistake of translating the Hebrew words that describe the way we are to be and not be in sacred encounter, tahor and tamei, as clean and unclean. What a travesty! This conveys the idea, as we discussed in our journey through Torah last year, that activities that lead one to be tamei are bad and wrong, since they make one “unclean.” We’ll get into this more in a moment. But, for now, think instead of this guidance as relating to a concern about coming into scared space diverted or distracted, in some ways lacking in wholeness, or without an appropriate level of purity of spirit.
The simple idea here is that the first step we must take to becoming a light unto the nations is to understand the difference between sacred and secular. As we have already discussed in so many ways, we need to experience the sacred as distinct from the everyday, the mundane. For it is from the sacred principally that we learn of holiness, get inspired to it, become committed to it, and carry it forward into the world.
This is not to say we don’t or shouldn’t live in the everyday. We’re human! Of course, we live in the everyday, as we must. But our covenant with God calls upon us to learn of the holy and spread the holy throughout our lives and our world. This requires a steady, regular, and whole experience of the holy, without confusion, distraction, or mixing with the other major dramas of life. And that, I think, is the purpose of these mitzvot.
B. In the second lesson, we’ll re-visit the mitzvot that relate to that odd spreading condition, tzara’at. You’ll recall our discussion of this affliction as a powerful metaphor for the consequences of sin. How do we contract this “disease”? How does it make us “impure?” How do we avoid it? And, more important, what do we do when we contract it to overcome and get past it? This discussion, I would suggest, has a great deal to do with holiness.
C. In the third lesson, we’ll explore what the guidance on forbidden mixtures teaches us about holiness and how we become holy.
D. And, finally, in the fourth lesson, we’ll get to the rules of kashrut. Whether we keep kosher or not, this guidance, we’ll learn, goes a lot deeper than it appears on the surface. The old line from the 60s - you are what you eat - may here have even deeper truths than what food does or doesn’t do to our bodies physically.
We will look for ways that guide us to behaviors and actions that are both physically and spiritually better for us.
We will look for ways that show greater respect for the feelings and well-being of other living creatures as well as the well-being of our environment.
We will look for ways that steer us away from people or animals whose behavior would not be beneficial for us to emulate.
We will look for ways to better ourselves simply by controlling our appetites.
In essence, again, we are looking for ways we can learn and practice that lead us to greater holiness.
The World of the “Clean” and the “Unclean,” Hereinafter Known as Tahor and Tamei
So, let’s get started with today’s lesson. For reasons we have discussed, we will no longer use the English words, clean and unclean. We must remove from our minds the pejorative connotations that such words convey. Rather, as we will see clearly, the mitzvot describe two states of being: one that is oriented spiritually to sacred encounter (tahor) and another (tamei) that, while wholly appropriate to many common life experiences, is not suitable to the sacred experience.
Essentially, one becomes tamei by having recently touched the world outside sacred space so closely or so deeply that it weakens or dilutes or distracts from our capacity to experience the holy. It’s not that the touch is wrong; indeed it might be unavoidable or even beautiful or necessary. It’s rather that it doesn’t mix with the sacred. Put another way, the Divine concern is that, while consumed with such stuff, we are not of a mind or spirit to engage in sacred encounter. These mitzvot also address the time and the process by which we can effect a transition from such ways of being and return to sacred space.
1. Read Numbers 5:2-3; Leviticus 11:8, 24, 28
Numbers 5: 2 Command the Israelites to send out from the camp anyone with a skin disease, an oozing discharge, or who has become unclean from contact with a corpse. 3 You must send out both male and female. You must send them outside the camp so that they will not make their camp, where I live among them, unclean.
Leviticus 11: 8 You must not eat the flesh of these animals or touch their dead bodies; they are unclean for you. 24 You make yourself unclean by the following animals—whoever touches their dead bodies will be unclean until evening, 28 Anyone who carries one of their dead bodies must wash their clothes and will be unclean until evening; these animals are unclean for you.
1a. Read: Numbers 19:11-12, 17-19
Numbers 19: 11 The person who touches the dead body of any human will be unclean for seven days. 12 That person must be cleansed with water on the third and seventh days to be clean. If he fails to be cleansed with water on the third and seventh days, he will not be clean.
17 For the unclean person, they will take some of the ashes of the purification offering and place fresh water with it in a jar. 18 Then a clean person will take hyssop, dip it into the water, and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the jars, on the people who were there, and on anyone who touched bone, the slain, the dead, or the grave. 19 On the third day and the seventh day the clean person will sprinkle it on the unclean, so that he will have purified him on the seventh day. He will then wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be clean at evening.
A. Here we encounter the first major experience in life that the Bible worries distracts us from sacred experience. What is it, and what’s the basis for the concern?
(It’s the touch of death. When we touch another’s death, especially that of a close relative or friend, we are so caught up in that experience and the mourning that follows that the drama of sacred encounter is, for a time, incompatible with it. It’s not that God is absent from moments of death and mourning. God is very much present. But while we live out the drama around death, we are utterly incapable of all of the mind and spirit and joy and offering that sacred encounter calls upon us to have in sacred space.
The old way of saying this was that we defile sacred space if we come into it while in death’s touch. Perhaps our way of saying it is that we are not right for sacred service when we are, rightly, full up in death and mourning. We’re not right for it, those experiencing it, and the space of such encounter; and it’s not right for us.
Another way of saying this is that when we experience death, our hands, bodies, and souls are touched with death. When we worship, make offerings, and consume of the sacred in sacred space, our hands, bodies, and souls are full of spiritual life in its purest and most directional form.
One drama has integrity. And so does the other.
Acting as if they can be mixed threatens and perhaps damages the integrity of
each, especially the holiness, which is the intended purpose of the sacred. We
face life, and we face death, but we make boundaries between the main experiences
of our lives. In so doing, we create meaning out of each and for both.)
2. Read Numbers 19:2-9
Numbers 19: 2 This is the regulation in the Instruction that the Lord commanded. Tell the Israelites that they must bring you a red cow without defect, which is flawless and on which no yoke has been laid. 3 You will give it to Eleazar the priest, and he will take it outside the camp and slaughter it in front of him. 4 Eleazar the priest will take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times in front of the meeting tent. 5 Then he will burn the cow in front of him, its skin, flesh, and blood, with its dung. 6 The priest will take cedarwood, hyssop, and crimson cloth and throw them into the fire where the cow is burning. 7 Then the priest will wash his clothes and bathe his body in water. Afterward the priest will enter the camp, but he will be unclean until evening. 8 The one who burned the cow will wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water, but he will be unclean until evening. 9 A person who is clean will gather the ashes of the cow and place them outside the camp in a clean place. They will be kept for the water of purification for the Israelite community as a purification offering.
B. Let’s focus now on the process of transition by which those who touch death can come back into sacred encounter. What in the world might the ritual of the ashes of the red heifer mean to us in our own time?
(Most sages say there is no clear rationale for this practice; rather there may be a hidden purpose, hidden by God. It’s hard to argue with that position. Why a red heifer? Where does one find it? What if one can’t find it, or in the number needed? What is the meaning of the process of killing and burning the cow, and then mixing its ashes with fresh water and sprinkling the mixture on the person who touched the dead? How could this process have a purifying effect?
I have a hypothesis. In the destruction of the red heifer, we experience ritually, vividly and dramatically the decomposition of our own bodies. All that’s left physically is the residue. And, in the midst of the death of a loved one, the mourner must acknowledge that lesson. We are sprinkled with the awareness that, materially, the dead are as the ashes of the red heifer. Spiritually, yes, the one who lived lives on with us and with God, but not physically. Until we are connected and committed to this truth after the powerful experience of touching death, we are not ready to re-enter sacred space for the purpose of worship and all that happens there as part of the sacred drama.)
3. Read Leviticus 15:18
Leviticus 15: 18 If a man lies with a woman and has an emission of semen, both of them must bathe in water and will be unclean until evening.
Q3: What is the important life experience that’s central to these verses? If we’re beginning to think of “unclean” as meaning that one has an experience in living that suggests the need for a separation from sacred encounter, why might there be a separation here?
There are several verses that precede these that relate to certain ordinary and mysterious bodily discharges. And there are several mitzvot that guide us as to what they mean. But I want to focus on the one most important, basic life experience in these verses we’ve just read. What is it, and why do you think the mitzvot call for a separation between it and sacred drama? And does such a separation make sense to you? Explain.
(We are guided to separate sexual experience from
sacred experience in both time and through transition. The premise is that we
cannot fully and wholeheartedly experience sacred encounter when we are too
fresh from the experience of sex. Again the mitzvot do not prohibit or
discourage loving and proper sex. Quite the contrary. They simply say that when
we experience moments of sexual drama, we must wait, permit that drama to
conclude and pass away, until we can properly and fully proceed into sacred
4. Read Leviticus 12:2-6.
Leviticus 12: 2 Say to the Israelites: If a woman conceives a child and gives birth to a son, she will be unclean for seven days—just as she is during her menstrual period. 3 On the eighth day, the flesh of the boy’s foreskin must be circumcised. 4 For thirty-three days the mother will be in a state of blood purification. She must not touch anything holy or enter the sacred area until her time of purification is completed. 5 But if the woman gives birth to a daughter, she will be unclean for two weeks—just as she is during her menstrual period—and will be in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days. 6 When the time of purification is complete, whether for a son or a daughter, the mother must bring a one-year-old lamb as an entirely burned offering and a pigeon or turtledove as a purification offering to the priest at the meeting tent’s entrance.
Q4. Putting aside the different treatment of the birth of a baby girl and a baby boy (unless you want to examine that), what is the drama here that is separated from sacred drama, and why would it be?
(Some might see these ideas as archaic, superstitious, and/or sexist. Some say these mitzvot have considerable mystery to them. Others view these mitzvot at their more literal level. I don’t want to argue with any of these positions. But here’s another perspective I tend to have: while God is with us in all experiences including childbirth, childbirth is its own miraculous drama whose integrity should be fully respected through a separation from sacred encounter.
The mother is giving birth to another human being! Both mother and baby have touched the edges of life and its transitions. They have lived in this world and others. And until the new life is stable, and pain and joy and normalcy come back into balance, mother and child are neither fully through that journey nor ready for transition back into the other dramas of life. While living out this vital drama, the new mother is excused by these mitzvot from experiencing either the sexual or the sacred. Then, after transition, she can return full of heart, soul, and attention to the encounter of God in sacred space.
An offering is brought when she re-enters sacred space, I think, in gratitude for the miracle that has occurred and the safe journey back from one world and its drama and peril to the space of the drama of formal encounter with God.)
5. Read Leviticus 15:16
Leviticus 15: 16 If it is an emission of semen, the man must bathe his whole body in water and will be unclean until evening.
Q5. This is representative text of the ritual that generally effects a transition, along with time, from tamei to tahor. How might we understand these actions to effect such a transition?
(In a sense, both physically and spiritually, we take on “a new skin” after experiencing the ritual waters, the flowing fresh waters. We get a fresh start after this womb-like transition. We then can begin a new journey after our touch with other major dramas, ready to return to sacred space, to resume preparation for our mission of work in holiness.
While Camille and I don’t often enough experience the flowing waters or the mikveh, I would say that the times we have done so were special, and the effect suggested in the text was very true to the special experience we had.
If not through these waters, do you have thoughts about other ways to achieve transitions between the major dramas of life, especially that of sacred encounter and the others we discussed today?