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.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Spiritual and Ritual Uncleanness - Shabbat 16

If we needed more confirmation that Rabbinic concept of being ritually unclean [tameh] has nothing to do with contemporary standards of cleanliness and hygiene, today’s page provides it. Containers made of wood, skin, bone, or glass remain clean if they are flat, but can be made unclean if they are hollow [literally mekablin – “receive something”]. Wood absorbs liquid and thus can be very unhygienic – in fact, thousands of lives were saved in 19th century Europe when hospitals switched from wooden bedframes to iron ones. But metal here can certainly be defiled, whether flat or hollow. And how does one “clean” such a defiled object? In this, pottery, wood, metal, glass and other materials all have something in common – if they are broken, they become “clean.” If only the dirty dishes worked the same way today. . .

Lest one believe that that is the easy escape from t’umah [uncleanness], each material has different standards for what may be done with the pieces. If the broken pieces of a metal container are remade into another container, even if melted down and refashioned, they revert to their previous status of uncleanness. For a ceramic or wooden vessel, on the other hand, if they are broken they are clean, and if they are remade into a new container it can become defiled again but is not automatically unclean.

Now we today may think these rules of ritual cleanliness to be silly, unscientific, and a vestige of a worldview that believed a divine power cared about every last detail of every last part of life. We could interpret these teaching allegorically, saying for example that just as one cannot create a clean metal vessel from pieces of an unclean one, one cannot create a just society built on little injustices. But we also need to remember that these definitions of purity and impurity had and have real life consequences – trying to resolve exactly what were the 18 issues on which Beit Shammai [the house of Shammai] and Beit Hillel disagreed, Rabbi Nahman b. Isaac suggested that they declared that the daughters of the Kutim [Samaritans, a branch-off of the Jewish people] were niddah [menstrually impure] from their cradles. In other words, even touching one, let alone marrying one, was a source of spiritual schmutz [dirt]. From that ethic, we have little positive to learn.

Rabbi Adam Chalom