Nidhani De Andrado
April 10, 2019
This week’s parashah from the Book of Leviticus includes chapter 15 which details the purification rites prescribed for males and females with genital discharges. Milgrom succinctly summarizes, “This chapter comprises four main cases of genital discharges . . . each case is defined, its consequences described, and its purification prescribed” (Milgrom 904). The four cases are: long term male discharges (2–15); short-term male discharges – semen emission (16-17); short-term female discharges — menstruation (19-24); long -term female discharges (25-30). We will briefly consider the symbolism and meaning of these rites, as well as their possible contemporary relevance.
Why would a priestly text like Leviticus contain a section on genital discharges? Milgrom points to the symbolism underlying bodily impurities, “their common denominator is death. Vaginal blood and semen represent the forces of life; conversely, their loss represents death” (Milgrom 1002). In the priestly understanding, the death-like impurity of people with genital discharges defiles the sanctuary, God’s dwelling place (15:31). Such persons are excluded from participation in certain ritual acts and barred from entering sacred precincts until they are rid of their condition and have completed purification rites. Ritual purity is achieved by means of sacrifices, sprinklings, washings, and bathing (Klawans 22-23).
Klawans distinguishes between the ritually impure and the morally impure. The latter refers to those who have committed wanton sins (like worshipping idols, bloodshed, incest and adultery) while the ritually impure are those who have contracted impurity through a natural process like menstruation or sexual intercourse or a disease (Klawans 23,26). Although ritual impurity is not sinful, people’s lives are severely constrained, since anyone or anything they touch becomes unclean.
From a modern stance, ritual impurity may seem like a vestige from the past which has no bearing for us. However, in thinking of ritual purity in today’s context, we may find it helpful to consider our own disposition towards the sacred. As we approach God in prayer and worship, are we aware of our own “discharges” — negativity, feelings of anger or guilt, of anxiety and fear? While these feelings are not sinful in themselves, do they prevent us from being open to divine grace? Do we show respect for God in the way we conduct ourselves – our words, gestures, behavior — both within and outside sacred precincts? What is our attitude towards those whose lives may be constrained by disease or disability? Do we strive to include the “untouchable” — those who are excluded, isolated or outcast through no fault of their own? Ritual purity laws remind us to be alert to our inner disposition towards God and others, and reveal the need for reverence in our relationships.
For Reflection and Discussion: Do you agree with Klawans’ distinction between moral and ritual impurity? How can we reconceptualize ritual purity in ways that are relevant to contemporary life?
Bibliography: J. Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16 Anchor Bible (NY: Doubleday, 1991); Jonathan Klawans, Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
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