Life, Death, and Impurity

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

My spiritual and intellectual journey as a teacher of Torah began with the purity system in Leviticus. Perhaps this was a strange place to begin my life's passion -- exploring genital discharges, corpse contamination and leprosy. However, the study of biblical purity laws yielded for me aprofound appreciation for the beauty and wisdom of our tradition.

As a young feminist college student, I discovered that the ancient Jewish laws of menstrual impurity were not an example of gender discrimination or blood taboo. Rather, the Torah teaches that all genital discharges, female and male, are sources of tumah (ritual impurity).These laws are part of a broader symbolic system, which highlights the power of confronting mortality and the subsequent need to ritualize the reaffirmation of life.

Many scholars concur that life/death symbolism is the underlying principle behind the biblical purity system. According to this theory, one becomes impure upon contact with death or with the loss of potential life. Indeed, the greatest source of impurity is a human corpse (Numbers 19). Leprosy, a scaly white skin disease which made one look like a corpse (see Numbers 12:12), is another severe form of impurity. Genital fluids, which represent the loss of generative material from the font of life, also cause impurity (Leviticus 15).

The Source of Life

According to biblical theology, God is the Source of Life. The God of Israel embodies life, and only the living can praise God (Psalms115). Therefore, our encounters with death or symbolic reminders of death momentarily remove us from the life-affirming rituals of God's abode in theTemple. Only after a symbolic rebirth through immersion in the "living waters" of the mikveh (ritual bath) could one return to a state of purity.

For many years, I have relished any opportunity to teach about the biblical purity system and the powerful purification ritual of the mikveh. However, year after year, I am challenged by the most paradoxical case of impurity in Leviticus. Parashat Tazria declares that a mother becomes impure following childbirth:

"When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days ... she shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days ... if she bears a female, she shall be impure two weeks ...and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days" (Leviticus 12:2-5).

Why would a mother contract impurity upon bringing new life into the world if impurity is the result of the symbolic forces of death? Furthermore, why would a mother's period of impurity double upon the birth of a female child?

Each time I read Leviticus Chapter 12, I consider the available responses to these persistent questions. There are several compelling suggestions. First, childbirth in the ancient Near East was fraught with danger to the mother and high infant morality rates. Thus, every childbirth was an encounter with potential death. Secondly, the pregnant woman is a vessel of abundant life. Following delivery, the mother experiences a loss of this powerful presence of life within. Her discharge of life leaves a void and creates the ritual necessity for purification. While neither of these answers perfectly reconciles the impurity of childbirth within the symbolic system, they both address the experience of childbirth as a nexus point between life and death.

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Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun works as a community adult educator at Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in Aventura, Florida.