Parshat Tazria-Metzora: “Tum’ah & Tahara” – Definitions in Flux…
Rabbi Daniel and Rebbetzin Ilana Epstein are Straus-Amiel shlichim serving as the Rabbinical Couple of Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Central London
The Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora, appearing as they do in the middle of the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra), deal with the epicentre of the Law of the Priests (“Torat Kohanim”).
Engaging with various physical discharges from or maladies of the human body, male and female, the Torah states that when these flows or lesions appear, the status of the individual concerned moves from Tahor (“pure”) to Tamei (“impure”).
These definitions are in quotation marks because they might not do justice to the change of status in every situation.
To be “tamei” implies experiencing a discharge that is somehow connected to death, or the inability to support life. In contrast, to be “tahor” means to be in a state of life-giving capacity.
For example, when a woman concludes her monthly cycle, the discharge of blood and material from her body demonstrates that the life-giving capacity of the womb is temporarily concluded, until the next month’s cycle replaces all the material necessary to potentially harness and initiate life once again. As a result, her body moves objectively from “tahor” – life-giving – to “tamei” – unable to sustain new life.
The period of being tamei – by not being able to procreate life – indicates a distancing from God in a comparative sense. God is, by definition, the pure articulation of Life and, as we emulate God as creatures “created in His image”, we are “like Him” when giving life and “unlike Him” when we cannot do so.
As a result, we become naturally and spiritually distanced from Him, and so coming into contact with a dead body, for example, similarly causes us to experience “non-life”. As a result, we find ourselves assuming a status of tamei, until we can return to a period of “tahara” through the passage of time and processes of purification.
However, in recent days, we have all witnessed the tragic loss of life in terrorist attacks in Israel. The intense outpouring of both grief and emunah (“deep faith and conviction”) have been overwhelming with the families themselves leading seemingly superhuman expressions of reaffirming their faith in God and in the passage of history and destiny of the Jewish People.
At this time, I am struggling with these definitions of tum’ah and tahara because as we are brought into contact with death, I find myself being drawn closer to God, not further away, and my faith deepens in a desperate attempt to find the strength to move forward.
I am finding that the traditional status of tahara (purity/closeness) is lacking in articulating my expression of closeness to God, as I find a much more visceral experience of vulnerability and d’veikut (“cleaving/closeness”) in the encounter with tum’ah (impurity/distance).
Maybe in the day-to-day fluctuations of life, these definitions are correct, but at the emotional and spiritual extremes, there may be room for a philosophical redrawing of the lines; to help us navigate the unknowable and the unspeakable.
May we draw strength from our faith at all times and in all circumstances. Amen.
The Synagogue, affectionately called Marble Arch, is officially known as the Western Marble Arch Synagogue and came into existence as a result of the successful merger between the Western Synagogue (founded in 1761) and the Marble Arch Synagogue (founded in 1957).
The Western Synagogue, one of the first Ashkenazi Synagogues in the country, was the first to be established outside the City of London in Westminster and was originally known as the Westminster Synagogue. It was the first London Synagogue to preach sermons in English. Whilst adhering to strict orthodox principles, The Western Synagogue had always maintained an attitude of religious tolerance to individuals and had upheld its tradition of administrative independence for well over two hundred years.
The Marble Arch Synagogue came into existence in 1957 under the auspices of the United Synagogue to replace the Great Synagogue which was destroyed by enemy action during the 2nd World War.
The merger in 1991 of these two great central London Synagogues, one being an Independent Synagogue and one being a part of the United Synagogue, was the first of its kind to have taken place in England. The two former congregations have happily blended together into a unified and dynamic community with a membership catering for all age groups.