I am an unabashed lover of Leviticus. And not just the “Be holy,” “Love your neighbor as yourself” second half of Leviticus, but especially the “slaughter the cow…sprinkle its blood” first half. “Be holy” sounds great, but what does it actually mean? What am I supposed to do to fulfill this vague entreaty? But the first half of Leviticus, which deals with how to perform sacrifices (chapters 1–10) and what makes someone or something pure or impure (chapters 11–16), that’s something I can work with. When the Torah says The priest shall take some of the blood…and put it on the lobe of the right ear… (Leviticus 14:14)—the right ear, not the left!—I know what I’m supposed to do.
Even sacred instruction manuals, though, have their ambiguities. One of the great questions for any reader of Leviticus has to do with a particularly hard-to-translate pair of Hebrew adjectives: tahor and tamei. These two words are clearly opposites, but what the pair captures has been variously rendered as “clean/unclean,” “pure/impure,” “fit/unfit,” “ready/unready.” Tied up with the confusion about translation is a deeper ambiguity—is tum’ah—the noun form of tamei—a condemned state? Does becoming impure (my preferred translation) mean that you’ve done something wrong? Someone who is tahor has no restrictions placed on their activity, while someone who is tamei is restricted, to varying degrees depending on the severity of the tum’ah, from coming into contact with various kinds of sacred items. It would seem obvious that, whatever fancy spin we might want to put on it, tahor is basically good and tamei is bad.
But it’s not quite so simple. A great example of this complexity appears in Leviticus 15:18. Chapter 15 is an entire chapter devoted to the religious implications of genital emissions—semen, menstrual blood, unexpected and ambiguous fluids exiting a human being’s genitals—it’s all there. (If you get queasy around discussions of bodily fluids, stick with me here. Chapter 15 begins with God’s exhortation to Moses and Aaron, Speak to the Israelites and say to them (15:2), doubled language that makes clear that these discussions are not meant to be esoteric knowledge for priests or doctors–we’re all supposed to spend some time thinking and talking about what’s coming out of our bodies.)
After discussing a man’s unusual, diseased emissions, Leviticus 15 turns to the case of a healthy seminal emission: “And when a man has intercourse with a woman, they must bathe in water, and they are impure until evening” (15:18). Heterosexual intercourse generates impurity; both partners become tamei.
For modern Americans, this might be utterly unsurprising. Raised in a culture influenced by religious traditions that view sex as fundamentally shameful, many will raise nary an eyebrow at an ancient religious text ascribing a negative valence to the earthy substances that result from sexual activity. But when we read the Torah on its own terms—that is to say, reading this verse in light of the Torah as a whole, trying as best we can not to superimpose later theologies onto it—Leviticus’s determination, among other things, that heterosexual intercourse will generate tum’ah is not only surprising, but logically illegible. After all, the very same Torah that rules semen impure also, in Genesis 1:28, tells the first humans to “be fruitful and multiply”! In other words, we are commanded to reproduce, which, for all of our modern technologies, still requires at some point a man’s emitting semen. At least one mitzvah demands that, in order to fulfill it, I become tamei.
This surely complicates our initial reading that tum’ah is basically negative. And indeed, scholarly treatments of the Bible and early Judaism debate what, if any, moral valence ritual impurity carries. Perhaps the best example comes from one of the 20th century’s foremost interpreters of biblical impurity, the anthropologist Mary Douglas (of blessed memory). In her groundbreaking 1966 book Purity and Danger, Douglas characterizes biblical impurity as a way of describing that which challenged the social order by crossing established boundaries. That which is “neither fish nor fowl,” as they say, is “impure” and thus banished from our midst—a thoroughly negative depiction. But in her later works—such as Leviticus as Literature (2000)—she reverses course, arguing that the tamei is precisely that which, because it exemplifies life and reproduction, is praiseworthy and thus must be protected from the grips of the profane world. If you want to start a fistfight among biblical scholars, ask them whether or not ritual impurity of the sort we find in Leviticus 15 is morally neutral.
The case of semen and its impurity suggests that both sides of that debate are right. Leviticus 15 makes clear that a man’s seminal emission is somehow incompatible with the sacred, and separation from sacred space is its consequence; until time has passed and he has bathed himself, he is forbidden from contact with those consecrated items that the culture of Leviticus holds most dear. And chapter 1 of Genesis makes clear that sexual reproduction is a religiously praiseworthy act. Taken together, we learn that something can be morally endorsed, required even, and still be culturally and psychologically defiling.
In a moment in our public conversation when many are debating the relative merits of “career politicians” and “outsiders,” this is an important realization. Whether it’s the insider who can’t avoid the criticism of being knee-deep in the muck of politics, or the outsider who falls victim to a “gotcha” moment of working the system, the simple fact of being in the muck, while certainly making one impure, does not mean that one has done something wrong. Indeed, this too may be a case of becoming “tamei” precisely as a result of doing something vitally important.
We would do well to remember that doing the right thing does not always lead to obvious reward, or even to an unambiguous positive feeling; often, it leads to getting one’s hands dirty, to a feeling or perception of no longer being “pure”. But trying to avoid ritual tum’ah or its secular equivalent would mean never engaging in the hard and essential work of human relationships and society-building.
Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg is an assistant professor of rabbinics at Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School.