Tahor & Tameh by Matt Harle

[Adapted  from a Forum Post on Tahor and Tameh for Gamliel Course 2, 2019]

Running through all of the readings this week seems to be an engagement (or non-engagement) with the ambiguous and the liminal.  If I were going to make a sweeping generalization (and of course I am), I would say that Judaism is a religion obsessed with boundary-crossing, at times embracing it and at times abhorring it.  And at the center of all of this is the boundary between pure and impure.  The amount of space devoted to it in the Torah, Talmud and beyond confirms this.

On the abhorrence side is the attitude towards niddah.  A menstruating woman is apparently so category-defying that she must be essentially banished for seven days, and anything that comes in contact with her becomes tameh.  Why such rejection of something so fundamental to human life as the menstrual cycle?  For one thing, its centrality makes it powerful.  But, as Rachel Adler says, it is also highly liminal in nature.  In the first place, women are the threshold where non-life becomes life.  Menstrual blood is a physical sign of this duality: life and not life; inside brought outside.  Of course, babies are such a sign as well, but they are unambiguously alive, while menstrual blood remains ambiguous.  As Adler says, it’s a “death” that makes room for life; a sort of shadow baby, emerging from the womb but with no life of its own.

On the liminality-embracing side would be something at the very heart of Judaism, Shabbat.  Poised at the fulcrum between the past and the future, It’s the point where the laws of ordinary time are suspended.  Its ambiguous state, starting and ending at a point when the distinction between day and night is blurred, allows for a paradoxical non-time to exist, and it’s in that non-time that we are brought closest to the source of the divine.

The Torah is full of such magical boundary crossings, from Yaakov’s vision to the Red Sea (to the Red Heifer?).  When I converted, I chose the name Yaakov in part because of his vision:  a ladder or staircase with beings constantly ascending and descending; a perpetual flowing from one world to another; the ultimate expression of liminality.

Another example of liminality is the Kohen Gadol’s passing from our realm into the Holy of Holies, the rope tied around his waist the literal marker of his transitional state, allowing him to cross and then recross the threshold.

Speaking of the Red Heifer and the Kohen Gadol, I now come to one of the most ambiguous instances of ambiguity (ambiguity squared!):  taharah.  As was made clear in the readings, contact with the dead has always been among the highest forms of tameh.  And yet taharah is a purification ritual.  How can death move from tameh to tahor in the taharah room, when it is unredeemably tameh everywhere else?  I would argue that the taharah room is a liminal space just like Shabbat, where a suspension of reality becomes possible (I even seem to recall that many seek to perform taharah at dusk).  This ambiguity is primarily manifested in the state of the meit/ah: dead but with the neshama still in some way attached.  In my nechamah class, I wrote that, while my beliefs are unclear about many things (the nature/existence of God, say), I feel compelled to accept the presence of the neshama in the taharah room.  I think this is because of the suspension of the normal order provided by liminal spaces.

Furthering the ambiguity of taharah is the centrality of water.  I think water’s nature is the epitome of ambiguity:  It has no shape of its own; its “thingness” is hard to define.  We can talk of ‘bodies of water”, but the “body” is determined by its container, not by the water.  Is a river a thing?  Water is an anomaly, especially flowing water: it unquestionably exists, but its existence defies categorization.  Water is therefore the perfect vehicle for purification in the taharah room.

Finally (for now – I’m sure the discussion can and will continue), the tachrichim.  As echoes of the clothing worn by the Kohen Gadol, they bring us back to the crossing of the threshold into the Holy of Holies.  Not only do the tachrichim elevate the meit/ah to the status of the Kohen (or perhaps vice versa), but they emphasize one role the meit/ah plays for us:  they are an emissary from this world to the next; from us to the divine.  They are for us the threshold between life and death, and by blurring the line between the two, they make us whole.

So, back to tahor and tameh.  The above leads me to what may be a controversial conclusion:  Purity is not simply the opposite of impurity, one to be sought, the other to be avoided, but rather its necessary complement.  But I’d go even further:  To be holy is to be whole.  Maybe we are a Chevrah Kadisha because we facilitate holiness/wholeness by holding tahor and tameh in a single thought, a single action.  By allowing the distinctions between life and death, tahor and tameh to be suspended, if only in the taharah room, we help create space for holiness to enter the world.

Oh, and then there’s that red heifer…..

[From the next posting on theForum]

Writing my previous post on tahor/tameh, I had some thoughts on the red heifer that didn’t really fit in.  Basically, I think we need to bring it back!  What would that mean, given that we’re not sure where to find one, or even what one is.  Also, animal sacrifice has fallen a bit out of favor.  So perhaps we can find an adequate substitute.

So, what is a red heifer?  I think it’s an anomalous being:  the list of criteria it must fulfill (natural birth; entirely red; no blemish or spot; never used as a work animal; the list goes on) makes it an extremely unlikely find.  Apparently only nine were slaughtered from the time of Moses to the destruction of the second temple (according to the Mishna).

The Rachel Adler reading mentions the anthropologist Mary Douglas, whose book “Purity and Danger” is largely about how the anomalous figures in the book of Leviticus.  There and elsewhere, she talks about how different societies treat anomaly–either by trying to eliminate it, or by embracing it as a transformative, magical attribute.  In this case, the red heifer, by virtue of its anomalous and therefore liminal state, is able to bridge the gap between tahor and tameh, and thus facilitate the purification of those that have come in contact with the dead.

So, why do we need one?  And what do we do if we can’t find one?  As I conclude in the tahor/tameh post, taharah may be purifying in and of itself due to its ability to unify seeming opposites (tahor and tameh; death and life) through its inherent liminality (sorry for the vagueness; I think I spell it out more clearly in the post).  That is, taharah may be purifying not only for the meit/ah, but for the taharah team as well.  So do we need to be additionally purified by a “red heifer”?  I would propose that we might not, but we could use some help making the transition between liminal, taharah space and “normal” space.  Typically, this is what the debriefing is for.  But maybe Chevrei Kadisha (chevras) need to find other, symbolic ways of making that threshold-crossing as well; invent their own red heifers to honor and assist the state-change they’ve undergone.

What that would look like, I’m not sure.  The location and incorporation of objects and/or texts, chants, etc. which feel anomalous or liminal to the group?  The use of transitional materials; materials that change state (one idea that occurs while writing this is that, as a meditation, each member could put a small ice cube in their mouths, feeling its transformation from ice to (living?) water as they mentally/spiritually move from the realm of death to the realm of life)?  The possibilities are wide open, and I plan to work with my chevrah to find ways to further honor the liminal in our work.

Thanks to Heidi Katz and David Zinner for our red heifer conversations!

Matt Harle
Matt Harle

Matt Harle is an artist, musician, and aspiring chaverr. He is a student of the Gamliel Institute, making his way through the core curriculum. He lives and works in the Hudson Valley in Beacon New York. This is his first blog for Expired And Inspired, but we look forward to more. In the photo he’s the one with the glasses.

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Kavod v’Nichum (Hebrew for “honor and comfort”) uses education and advocacy to empower Jews of all backgrounds to reclaim the mitzvot (“commandments” or “good deeds”) of honoring the dead. The organization ensures that local groups and congregations can support mourners through traditional Jewish activities and rituals in ways that are accessible and relevant to today’s Jewish community. Kavod v’Nichum helps the Jewish community engage with traditional practices while giving individuals the information they need to adapt those traditions in their own meaningful ways.

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