Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Ritual Purification - Berakhot 22

Those who admire the Torah from a distance (i.e. without really reading it) as a collection of Jewish ethics and beautiful stories are surprised to discover that many of the Torah’s rules and regulations concern the treatment of those who have become tameh, or “ritually unclean” – how do they become unclean, what are they prohibited from doing while unclean, how do they become pure (tahor) again. The most common example of becoming tameh is a menstruating woman (niddah), but one may also be “contaminated” by touching a dead body or by having a “nocturnal emission,” which today we would call a wet dream, or else some kind of infection.

The Baal Keri discussed in today’s Talmud page is the name for the last case, and we see that the restrictions on offering sacrifices or approaching the Temple while ritually impure have been translated to Rabbinic Judaism – if unable to purify himself, he is restricted from the Rabbinic “holy of holies”: reciting certain blessings and reading the sacred words of Bible and Rabbinic tradition. However, the “words of Torah specialist” Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra explains that he may recite what he knows from memory, because the holy words themselves cannot be made unclean, even if a scroll might.

So how does one become ritually pure again? Authorities differ as to how much water must be used: some suggesting a smaller amount needs to be thrown on the sufferer, others that the sufferer must immerse himself in a larger amount of water (more like a mikvah, or ritual bath). One rabbi was even sitting in a larger bath and asked a servant to throw the smaller amount over him to purify him! Clearly, in Rabbinic thought as in the Torah ritual purity and physical cleanliness are not really related – ritual impurity is a kind of “spiritual schmutz” (dirt) that requires symbolic solutions.

What does all this have to do with the more secular lifestyle observed by most Jews today? Many of us believe that ethical “cleanness” is more important than an arbitrary ritual standard, and that personal cleanliness is more of a sign of self-regard than ritual impurities one cannot control. Yet this is an historical record of Jewish practice, and Jewish concern. Even if we prefer to sing N’taher Libaynu (“Let us purify our hearts”), this text helps us understand both the role of reading the holy books as a substitute for sacrifice and the concept of ritual impurities in Talmudic Judaism - just as the impure could not offer sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple, so now they may not read the holy books.

Rabbi Adam Chalom