Spiritual and Ritual Uncleanness - Shabbat 16
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