Monday, December 22, 2008

My Thoughts on Ritual Impurity

One of the restrictions on Cohanim is that we are not allowed to be in the presence of a dead body, which is considered ritually unclean. Growing up this mostly meant I stayed out of graveyards and sat in a shed next to the funeral home with my father when my Aunt died.

I never understood why I did these things, though I did know that on the few occasions when I went through graveyards, I felt uncomfortable and had the feeling that it was wrong to be there. (Notably only recent graves; when I've walked through colonial era graveyards, I experienced no discomfort.) A few years ago, I attended a wake for the brother-in-law of a close friend. I looked at the body out of curiosity, but then stayed as far away from it as possible - it just felt wrong. I could feel the soul of the deceased was present in the room, which was normal, but the body itself made me feel uneasy.

Two years ago, my dog died. She had been with me for almost 12 years and fought against cancer for five months when we decided that the pain was too much and it was only going downhill from there. We brought her to the vet and as she was put to sleep, my wife and I cried. I felt her ancestors come into and fill the room immediately before the injection. They gathered her to them as she died, and surprisingly quickly, they took her to the other side and were gone from the room. We sat there crying and then I suddenly looked at my wife and said that we had to leave. Her body, which only a minute or two early had been filled with life, was now empty. And impure.

A few days later, when I picked up her body to take it to bury, it was no longer impure, energetically I felt nothing.

At the moment of death, there was a particular energetic about it that felt like this was a vessel for life that had none in it. It's very hard to describe as it's not anything I've felt since. It's hard to base my thoughts on a major tenant of Judaism on a single experience, but when I look at other examples of ritual impurity, it seems to make sense.

In modern times, menstrual blood, or Niddah, is a good example of ritual impurity. When women have their periods, they are ritually impure until a period of time passes (seven days after the last drop of blood) at which point the woman needs to immerse herself in a Mikvah (ritual bath) to become pure again. There are many Jewish men and women who do not touch members of the opposite sex because they are worried that the woman is in a state of Niddah and may pass along the ritual impurity.

Menstrual blood is that same state as I describe earlier: it is a vessel for life that has none in it. The egg has the potential for life, but there is no life there. When it is discharged from the body, the blood would have the same potential. The seven days might be the time period that it takes for the impurity to wear off, so to speak, just as it did with my dog.

Different people have different gifts, and I think feeling ritual purity has not been one of mine, or at least it's nothing I've focused on. I don't know if I felt it so acutely with my dog due to the intensity of my emotions, or if it was because it was the first time I had ever been with someone as they died.

I suspect that there are people who feel impurity very acutely and I think the Jewish laws on ritual purity originated in a person or persons with that gift. They then got canonized and expanded by people with a more intellectual gift. I need to study all of the other instances of ritual impurity (such as Tzora'at) in the Torah to find out if my ideas fits in the other cases.

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