The temple system of ritual purity and impurity continues to have an effect on Jews even though the Jerusalem Temple itself is long gone, replaced by synagogues, and prayers have taken the place of sacrifices.
Rooted in biblical texts, and greatly expanded in rabbinic ones, Jewish daily life continues to play out the concepts of tahor and tamei, of ritual cleanness and ritual uncleanness, of our appropriateness or not to enter the Temple courtyards to bring sacrifices – a paradigm of supreme practical futility given that we have lived in diaspora for over two thousand years and have had no Temple in which to take such offerings.
Be it the kashrut system and our attitudes to the food we eat, of blessing God before eating or drinking, be it the use of mikveh after menstruation or giving birth, or before the festivals, or be it the practice of Cohanim not to enter the Ohel of a cemetery or come too close to either the dead or their graves, everyone washing hands after leaving a cemetery, the system of tahor and tamei continues to be quietly yet powerfully expressed.
While there is an enormous and complex rabbinic explication of the system – almost entirely long after it has ceased to be of use in the Temple, there is relatively little actual explanation about its purpose beyond being fit or unfit for Temple activities. Yet the concepts are critical to understanding Jewish life across the millennia.
To begin, the words tahor and tamei, usually translated as to do with purity or cleanliness, express ideas that do not exist in other languages or cultures. Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests they are words expressing a blockage of (tamei) or a freedom for (tahor) the transmission of holiness. Someone who is tahor is able to be a conduit for God’s will in the world, someone who is tamei is not. The words are certainly nothing to do with physical cleanliness, even though one way to remove most states of “tumah” is mikveh – immersion in living waters.
Essentially when we talk about these states, we are in the world of moral concepts, in particular the world of kedushah, of holiness, and of the efforts we make to express God’s will in the world by our mundane and quotidian actions.
The Parah Adamah, the second reading torah reading that is read on the shabbat before shabbat haChodesh, the shabbat before Pesach, and which gives this shabbat its name (Shabbat Parah) is placed here in our liturgical calendar in order to remind the people to make themselves ready to offer the Pesach sacrifice. The “impurity” caused by contact with the dead is unlike any other impurity – it cannot be solved by time, washing and mikveh alone, but only by this arcane and opaque ritual of the ashes of a red heifer. Since the impurity can be passed on to others who did not have contact with a dead body, the chances are high that at any one time we are all in this state of tumah -of ritual impurity. While we cannot resolve this state without the ritual of the ashes which no longer exist, and in any case will not be offering the Korban Pesach, it seems at first glance odd that the tradition has insisted that it be read. There must be another reason for us to keep it so prominently in our liturgical calendar.
One reason is a may be a reminder that death is a disrupter of the importance of bringing holiness into the world. Judaism is a religion of life, we can only perform mitzvot in our lifetime (the reason why a Jew who is buried in tallit will have the symbolic knotted threads on each corner cut before burial), the dead do not praise God says the psalmist. While death is normal and natural, we do not look forward to it as the gateway to heaven. Our focus is on living a life that allows us to bring God and holiness into the world, not on a life whose meaning is particular only to ourselves or one that is a precursor to some “real life” in the afterlife.
Yet death is always around us, it can create fear in us and the deaths of others can destabilise us. The death of one we love can cause us to reject life, or to reject God. Death rarely comes at the right time, we all want more life if we can.
So the idea of death causing this highest form of tumah, of impurity, a form that requires a special and esoteric ritual, is a reminder that while we recognise our own mortality in theory, we find ourselves blocked or in denial about what this might really mean for us – our lives and our selves too will end.
Yet there is a way to resolve this that is held out to us on shabbat Parah – we have the almost fantastical ritual of the Parah Adamah – and some way in some time this ritual will be available to us once more, the conduit between us and the divine caused by our own mortality and the mortality of those we love, can become cleared. Death will not be the end.
Another reason we read of the Parah Adamah is that the rabbis who mandated it and who built the complex and enormous system of theoretical ritual purity and impurity were focused not on any physical state but on our spiritual state. The second torah reading this shabbat is paired with a special haftarah. In the book of Ezekiel we read that “I will sprinkle “mayim tehorim” – ( pure water) on you and you shall be tahor (pure). From all your tumah (impurities) I will purify you.” (Ezekiel 36:25). It is an echo of the ritual of the red heifer, but it takes the ideas of purification further and explicitly moves the arena to the spiritual rather than the physical and ritual purification.
“נָתַתִּ֤י לָכֶם֙ לֵ֣ב חָדָ֔שׁ וְר֥וּחַ חֲדָשָׁ֖ה אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וַהֲסִ֨רֹתִ֜י אֶת־לֵ֤ב הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ מִבְּשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וְנָתַתִּ֥י לָכֶ֖ם לֵ֥ב בָּשָֽׂר׃
And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh;
וְאֶת־רוּחִ֖י אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וְעָשִׂ֗יתִי אֵ֤ת אֲשֶׁר־בְּחֻקַּי֙ תֵּלֵ֔כוּ וּמִשְׁפָּטַ֥י תִּשְׁמְר֖וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶֽם׃
and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules.
God says “I will give you a new heart (Lev Chadash) and a new spirit (Ruach Chadasha)… and cause you to follow my laws etc
The purification here is one of a moral flaw – the heart of stone we have demonstrated in our lives so far, a heart that has been unable to hear the needs of others, unwilling to respond with compassion and thoughtfulness, that heart will be replaced by God with one of flesh – a heart of humanity, of openness to others, a heart that sustains life.
Rabbi Jacob Milgrom teaches that the ritual of the red heifer is a ceremony of ethical cleansing for the self and for the community. He writes “Ancient Jews believed that acts of immorality affected more than just those involved in them. There are consequences of wrongdoing that infect and pollute the entire community. … [the sins] have a contaminating effect, not only upon the guilty individuals but also upon the community and sanctuary. Asking forgiveness through sacrifices and prayers, even repairing the wrong through apology or restitution, is not enough to purify what is soiled by wrongdoing.
“For the ancients, the ritual of the parah adumah alone has the power to remove or exorcise such sinfulness. ‘By daubing the altar with blood or by bringing it inside the sanctuary, the priest purges the most sacred objects and areas of the sanctuary on behalf of the person who caused their contamination by physical impurity or inadvertent offense.’ The person and the community corrupted by wrongdoing are restored to a state of purity and can then go on without the burden of guilt.” Jacob Milgrom, JPS Torah Commentary ad loc)
Reading this extra piece of torah within days of celebrating Pesach functions not only as a prompt for us to examine ourselves and our lives half a year after the period of teshuvah of Elul and Kippur, it also reminds us that our lives have value and meaning, that we must live them the best way we can, renewing ourselves and behaving with greater humanity and renewed spirit in the world. It reminds us that lives are finite, that each one of us is a conduit for holiness, that the world is mysterious and while we cannot understand everything, we can understand the importance of a life searching for the divine.
And finally, why did the rabbis spend so much time and thought on a system that no longer existed? It is I think an act of hope, a belief in redemption and the forging of an identity that would be clearly and powerfully based on the activities of everyone’s daily life. The majority of the Jewish world were no longer living in Eretz Yisrael. There was no temple extant. But what better way to keep a people and a religious and cultural system alive and connected than the system of ritual purity they created. Every moment of this system is a reminder of our covenant relationship with God. Every tiny detail ensured that the Jewish world stayed focused on that, on the Land, on God, and on our peoplehood we would not be lost while in exile, the fate of so many peoples displaced at the whim of great empires.
It was, I think, a religious act and a political one too. The Jews, wherever they find themselves, are part of a system designed to bring us closer to God in a specific and unique way. The system kept us from merging with the cultures surrounding us, yet allowed permeability so that we could absorb enough to live and survive in them. It gave us the flexibility to live in diaspora yet with our eyes towards Jerusalem, and the structure to retain our particularity and act out and understand our covenant relationship with God.
The ritual of the red heifer may continue to be mysterious and inexplicable, a law of God with no obvious rationale, but the system within which it sits is the air that we breathe. It is an imperative towards life, an imperative towards holiness, a reminder to check ourselves and repair what we can in timely fashion. A reminder of our mortality, and of the life we want to live.