Sunday, April 17, 2005

New Blogger Comments

Blogger has greatly improved its comments feature, so, after considerable nagging from a friend and some help from DH, I've switched to Blogger from Haloscan. Haloscan comments posted in March 2005 and earlier can be viewed by clicking on the links to the appropriate archive pages (right sidebar). I've imported the comments on the four April posts manually.

One change that you will notice immediately is that the most recent comments now appear at the bottom of the thread, rather than at the top. Long comments will not be truncated, so you will no longer have to worry about breaking them up. There are a few other differences, but they're pretty self-explanatory.

All rightie. Time to stop playing with my blog and go shopping for Passover.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Metsorah: The Purity System in Post-Temple Judaism

Last week I wrote about the biblical purity system. This week I’d like to discuss the impact of the biblical system on post-Temple Judaism.

After some initial ambiguity, it became accepted that most of the biblical purity regulations applied only when the temple stood, since their practical implications were limited to access to the sanctuary and to entities dedicated to the sanctuary. Exceptions to this rule occur where biblical law suggests implications that extend beyond the sphere of the sanctuary. These exceptions occur in three major areas:

1. Pure and impure animals, birds, insects, etc. In addition to transmitting ritual impurity, impure creatures may not be eaten, according to Leviticus 11. This chapter also specifies the ways in which these creatures may transmit impurity to various types of vessels (vv. 32-36). These regulations form the basis for the laws pertaining to the maintenance of kosher cooking implements and dishes.

2. Purity of priests. Priests (kohanim) are prohibited from contracting death-impurity except in very specific situations (Leviticus 21:1-4). Although one might logically assume that this prohibition derives from the priests’ role in the Temple, the Bible states the prohibition categorically. Observant kohanim therefore refrain from visiting cemeteries to this day.

3. Menstrual impurity Leviticus 18:19 prohibits sexual intercourse with a woman in a state of menstrual impurity. The basis for determining this state and purifying oneself of it is derived from Leviticus 15:19-30. The sacrifices called for by verse 29, of course, can no longer be offered, but women are required to immerse in water from a natural source (referred to as a mikveh), a process that the biblical text describes as “washing oneself in water.”

The rabbinic development of #3 puzzles me in a number of respects, which I will outline below. I would appreciate it if those of you with more extensive knowledge of this area of halachah could help enlighten me.

First, I am somewhat confused about the immersion requirement. The Bible does not mandate that a woman immerse after menstruation, or after any other form of discharge, for that matter. (It does, inexplicably, mandate that women immerse from semen-impurity contracted through sexual intercourse.) My understanding is that the rabbis derive the requirement of immersion after menstruation from the requirement that men immerse after contact with menstrual blood (vv. 20-24). (Ironically, this requirement no longer applies, since the impurity of males has implications only insofar as the sanctuary is concerned.) My questions are as follows: Is immersion after menstruation considered halachah mi-de’oraita (“biblical” law)? If so, is it derived by means of gezerah shavah (analogy) or some other legal mechanism, or is it simply assumed?

Second, I am perplexed by the fact that the rabbis deemed the laws of zavah relevant to the prohibition against sex with a menstruant. A zavah is defined by as a woman who experiences a long or irregular blood flow, as per Leviticus 15:25-30. Unlike women with regular periods, who remain impure for seven days following the onset of menstruation, zavot remain impure for seven days following the cessation of blood flow, presumably to ensure that the flow will not resume without notice.

Based on the biblical text alone, it would seem that the laws of zavah should apply to off-cycle periods, or to periods lasting longer than seven days. The rabbis, however, considered any flow of three days or longer a case of zavah, and the Talmud (BT Niddah 66a) relates that Jewish women took on the additional stringency of applying the laws of zavah to isolated blood stains “the size of a mustard seed” or larger. Because of the difficulty of differentiating between cases of niddah (regular menstruation) and cases of zavah, the rabbis eventually instituted a new law calling for the stricter zavah regulations to be applied to regular menstruation as well (BT Niddah 67b). Thus, contemporary Orthodox wives wait seven days after the cessation of menstruation, even when their periods are regular, before immersing in a mikveh and resuming sexual relations with their husbands.

My question is, why should the rules of zavah apply in post-Temple times at all? Leviticus 18 prohibits sex with a woman in a state of niddah impurity, not a state of zavah impurity. This may seem like hair-splitting, but it is the sort of hair-splitting that constitutes the bulk of rabbinic law. True, it would be illogical to prohibit sex with a woman experiencing a regular period and permit it in the case of a lengthy or irregular period. This could be resolved, however, by applying the laws of niddah to cases of zavah. Applying the laws of zavah to cases of niddah strikes me as beyond the realm of reasonable stringency. What was the purpose of instituting such a law?

Even stranger, contemporary Orthodox practice requires a woman to wait an initial five days before counting the extra seven, even if her period is exceptionally short. The reason for this, as I understand it, is that a woman may expel semen for several days after intercourse, resulting in a state of semen-impurity (also referred to as zavah). As I’ve noted, the Torah does not explicitly prohibit sex with a woman experiencing an irregular period, and it certainly doesn’t prohibit sex with a woman in a state of semen-impurity. Even if such a counter-intuitive prohibition did exist, it should only prevent a woman from immersing while she might still be expelling semen, that is (to use the rabbis’ somewhat overzealous estimate) for five days after intercourse. To prevent her from even beginning to count the requisite seven days preceding immersion seems to me to defy common sense.

Finally, I understand that women who ovulate early, during their period of niddah, and are therefore unable to conceive (a state known as “halachic infertility”) are sometimes given dispensation to begin counting the extra seven days before the initial five are completed. However, they are never (as far as I know) given dispensation to forgo the extra seven, which would seem to be the truly superfluous ones. Thus, these dispensations are unhelpful to a majority of women, whose periods typically last longer than five days. Is this because the seven days are a matter of rabbinic law (halachah mi-derabbanan), while the five are a matter of custom (minhag)? Even if this is the case, there are other situations in which rabbinic law is waived on account of extreme need. (Not only to save a life – for that purpose, even biblical law is waived.) Why not here?

Monday, April 11, 2005

CJLS Reaffirms Commitment to Ambiguity

In 1992, the Conservative Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards met to discuss the role of gays and lesbians in Jewish communal life. While affirming that homosexuals were welcome in Conservative "youth groups, camps, and schools," the resolution that emerged from the 1992 meeting was largely negative. Gays and lesbians would remain barred from rabbinic and cantoral positions; same-sex weddings and commitment ceremonies would be prohibited; individual rabbis would retain the right to bar gays and lesbians from leadership positions of any sort.

Last week, the CJLS revisited the issue amid much fanfare. A revised resolution was issued, which contained the following decisive statement:

The parameters of sexual conduct for gay and lesbian Jews, their eligibility for admission to rabbinical and cantorial school, and commitment ceremonies remain the subject of a lively debate within the ongoing deliberations of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

At least this time they acknowledged the debate.

The full text of both statements and some responses can be found here and here.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Tazria: The Biblical Purity System

[Note to readers: If you've heard any of this before, please let me know. I'm sure I'm not the first to come up with these ideas.]

The biblical purity system is one of the great enigmas of Israelite religion. It makes sense that the Israelites would want to keep that which is distasteful as far as possible away from the sanctum, and that an elaborate system might arise to ensure that this remained the case. But why should menstrual blood and semen be included among the sources of impurity, while urine, vomit, and mucus are not? Why skin diseases and not diseases of the eyes, for example, or the respiratory system? Why is semen impurity removed by bathing and waiting until evening, while birth impurity requires a waiting period of thirty-three to sixty-six days and a sacrifice, and death impurity requires sprinkling with the ashes of a red heifer?

Many attempts have been made to explain the psychology and/or theology behind the system. One popular interpretation, most thoroughly argued by Jacob Milgrom, is that impurity derives from an association with death, and the Israelite deity is a God of life. A human corpse is thus the source of the most severe type of impurity. Genital discharges represent the loss of potential life, because they were all believed to carry generative seed. Skin diseases, which are visibly degenerative, are closely associated with death, and thus generate impurity. Purification offerings (often translated "sin-offerings") involve the sprinkling of blood on various parts of the sanctuary, because blood is a symbol of life and therefore an appropriate "ritual detergent."

I think that this interpretation has merit, but it also has flaws. First, semen emitted in certain contexts may be best described as a "loss of potential life," but the substance itself is the source of impurity, and the substance itself is a source of life. The association of semen with death is most illogical when it is emitted during intercourse. Childbirth, similarly, causes impurity. Though this impurity seems to be associated with the bleeding that occurs during birth, the association with death still strikes me as a little bit strange. (I've heard it argued that bearing children involves a "partial death" for the mother because a human life is exiting her body, but I find this a bit of a stretch.)

Secondly, it is less than logical that blood issuing from human genitals -- a supposed source of generative seed -- symbolizes "death," while blood from a recently slaughtered animal symbolizes "life." This is the sort of reasoning that results from trying to fit the facts to an already established conclusion.

My own recent thought on the matter is that both the creation of life and its loss are potential sources of impurity as well as purity. These are most powerful forces, and they are rightly within the domain of the deity. Occurring in the natural course of human life, these forces generate impurity, but blood deliberately shed in a cultic context has the power to purify. There may be a connection between this idea and the law forbidding the consumption of blood: both an agent of life and a product of death, blood is not for human beings, but rather, for God.

A few additional thoughts: Most of the biblical purification rituals have a certain practical logic to them. Semen impurity cannot reasonably last more than a day or require a material sacrifice, since this would prevent couples from having sex and result in an undue monetary burden on men. Menstrual impurity, similarly, cannot reasonably require a sacrifice each time it occurs, but it must last longer than a day, since menstruation typically continues for about a week. Seven days is an appropriate duration for such impurity, being both the duration of a normal period and a biblical symbol of completion. Lengthy or irregular bleeding requires a seven-day wait after the bleeding has ceased in order to ensure that it does not begin again. Irregular discharges from both men and women require a sacrifice, which is reasonable, since by definition they occur less often than regular discharges; it is also understandable, given their mysterious and frightening nature and the fact that they may pose a health risk. Discharge of blood after childbirth may last for several days, resulting in a state similar to menstrual impurity. A lesser level of impurity follows, because of the lengthy period of infirmity and discharge that typically accompanies "natural" childbirth. Skin diseases require quarantine because they are contagious; this type of impurity cannot be removed before the patient has healed.

Other aspects of the system are less self-evident. One of these appears at the start of this week's Torah portion, where mothers are instructed to observe 7 + 33 days of impurity after giving birth to a boy, and 14 + 66 days for a girl. Those defending the system often point out that impurity may be rendered by the holiest of entities as well as the most profane, so this law is not necessarily misogynistic. I wonder whether females generate greater impurity because of their close association with the process of birth. This may not be either a "positive" or "negative" characteristic per se, but simply a certain type of power, which must be properly regulated.

Another perplexing law appeared in last week's additional reading, parshat parah. Death impurity can be removed only by waiting seven days and having a mixture of water and the ashes of a completely red (or brown) cow sprinkled on oneself with a willow branch. (This occurs both on the third day and the seventh.) Paradoxically, the priest who burns the cow, the man who does the sprinkling, and anyone who touches the ashes of the cow, become impure. It has been argued (reasonably) that the symbolic value of the completely colored cow is to increase the amount of "blood" in the mixture, this being a particularly severe form of impurity requiring a particularly concentrated form of the purifying substance. I would add that the very scarceness of such ashes increases the awe with which human death is regarded. But why should the ashes play a double role, rendering those with death impurity pure and those without it impure? I think that it is not the ashes themselves, but their association with death impurity that gives them the power to render the pure impure. Any association with the realm of human death, even with the substance that allows an individual to exit that realm, must have some consequence. Tellingly, a priest, who is forbidden contact with the dead, does not even sprinkle the purifying waters. For an individual whose purity is of such great consequence, even burning the cow that will later be used to treat death impurity requires a purification process.

The paradoxical red heifer ritual is the best illustration of the dual nature of blood, with its ability to impart or remove impurity, depending on context.