Our mouths are the crucible for refining Torah
This week's portion: like God

Meeting "impurity," and being changed (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

Parashat Tazria- Metzora used to make me really uncomfortable. I bristled at the notion that bearing a daughter creates twice as long a period of impurity as bearing a son. I couldn't relate to the alleged correlation between eruptive conditions and spiritual impurity. The obsession with pure and impure seemed basically unrelated to the Judaism I know and love and practice.

Over the last year, though, I've started to understand this question of taharah and tumah (loosely, and arguably poorly, translated as "purity" and "impurity") in some new ways. What changed my sense of these concepts (and, by extension, this double-wide Torah portion)? Joining my shul's chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society), and doing an extended unit of CPE.

In other words, coming into direct contact with sickness and with death.

I imagine most of us don't understand sickness the way it's depicted in this week's Torah portion, at least not intellectually. Having a visible skin condition is neither a sign, nor a result, of spiritual impurity in today's world.

But viscerally, many people have uncomfortable reactions to visible sickness. (It's no coincidence that physical sickness -- an embodied condition -- affects us in our viscera, our own embodied selves.) Most of us feel uneasy walking into hospitals, for instance. There's something distressing about confronting disease, bodies which aren't functioning well, human beings like ourselves who may be dying.

We may rationalize our hospital discomfort by thinking we fear contagion. Though we don't regard disease as spiritually contagious the way the ancient Israelites did, our modern understanding of germs and microbes can engender reluctance to touch those who are afflicted. Certainly those precautions are often life-saving, for ourselves and for those who are ill; there's a reason for sterile scrubs and masks sometimes. But I think there's something else going on in our fear of hospital rooms: an inchoate sense that contact with sickness and death changes us.

Meeting someone who is sick obligates us to remember our own fragility, our own impermanence. I too could be in a car accident on a snowy night; I too could develop cancer someday. Even if I live a long and blessed life, I too will someday die. Which means what? Crossing the border into something we don't and can't understand. There's something existentially unsettling about these things.

When I have spent a night ministering to a family in crisis -- children of a parent unexpectedly dead of an aneurysm; parents of a child incapacitated by a skiing accident; spouse of someone who is dying, or who is already gone -- I have come away feeling the same kind of wired exhaustion that arose after my first time serving on the chevra kadisha. Dealing with sickness and death leave me a little dizzied, a little fried, as though I'd stuck my metaphysical finger into a socket and gotten charged-up with an energy I can't quite describe. It's not a bad feeling, exactly, but it's not a comfortable one. It's the spiritual equivalent of looking directly into the sun. I come away with my vision temporarily blurred.

This, I think, is one way of understanding what tumah is all about. It's what clouds around us after a brush with the ineffable. Who could deny that birth, and sickness, and death are powerful? Though we can intellectualize them, there's something about these physical changes that shakes us up on a physical and emotional level. These experiences may open doors through which we can sense the presence of God. These can be opportunities to encounter holiness. The hospital where I've been working is a manifestly holy place. But it's not an easy one...and the holy encounter isn't always gentle. The state of tumah is what we feel after that encounter.

In this understanding of what tumah might mean, I follow in the footsteps of scholar and theologian Rachel Adler. In her essay "Tumah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings," she writes:

Tumah is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality. It is the going down into darkness. Taharah is the result of our reaffirmation of our own immortality. It is the reentry into light. Tumah is devil or frightening only when there is no further life. Otherwise, tumah is simply part of the human cycle. To be tameh is not wrong or bad. Often it is necessary and sometimes it is mandatory.

Birth leaves a mother tamei for a while, elated and exhausted and spiritually shell-shocked. Sickness makes us briefly tamei. Encountering death, too. Of course, death itself seems to be a great reverser; though those who touch the body of someone dead become tamei, our cleansing and wrapping and blessing of that body makes it tahor, tamei's opposite. (I consider that one a koan -- I can't parse it logically, but it works experientially.)

Experientially: that seems to be critical here. The rules for dealing with eruptive conditions -- the disease called tzara'at, menstruation and nocturnal emissions, houses which seep with mildew -- aren't meant to be dry intellectual fodder. This week's Torah portion talks about embodied ways of approaching embodied problems. We no longer celebrate the end of skin conditions with cedar, birds, and hyssop (as this week's parsha describes)...but there's something powerful about the underlying message of the portion, to wit, that what happens in the garments which wrap and protect us (our bodies, our cloth, our houses) can impact our essential selves (our neshamot, our souls).

Earlier this spring I had a bad reaction to an antibiotic. (It turns out I'm allergic to sulfa drugs and should never take them again.) My body responded with a "fixed drug eruption," an episode where skin on part of my body eroded away. The condition had a profound spiritual impact. During the ten days or so that I was sick, I found myself literally unable to pray the morning liturgy. And even once the condition was healed, it took a few days before my spirit felt as normal as my body did. Similarly, after an intense on-call shift at the hospital, it takes a few days before I feel ordinary again. Sleep and hot tea and a good hot shower are all part of the returning-to-normal process...but so is the healing passage of time. Experiences like these are dips into a kind of tumah which takes a few days to fade away.

Judaism resists pure dualism. This week's Torah portion teaches that what happens in our bodies reverberates in our souls. As strange as we may find these verses about tzara'at and blood, I think they hint at truths we need to know.