Halakha out of context is like a body without a soul

Rabbi Yoni Rosenzweig is a senior lecturer in the Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum

Yoni Rosenzweig“And the Lord said unto Moses: Speak unto the Kohanim the sons of Aharon, and say unto them: There shall none defile himself for the dead among his people.  Except for his kin, that is near unto him, for his mother, and for his father, and for his son, and for his daughter, and for his brother.  And for his sister a virgin, that is near unto him, that has had no husband, for her he may become impure. He shall not cause himself to become impure, being a chief man among his people, to profane himself “

The above verses relate the laws of mourning pertaining to Kohanim, in accordance with the laws of purity to which they are subject.  Jewish Law permits a Kohen to become impure should one of his seven closest relatives die, while prohibiting him from entering a state of impurity caused by contact with other deceased persons (except in special cases). 

To an outside spectator, these special laws – prohibiting the Kohen from becoming impure for the sake of more distant relatives or even close friends – may seem very odd.  But even in our own times, it is not an unfamiliar sight to see Kohanim standing apart from everyone else during funerals, unable to accompany the deceased to his or her last place of rest.  In a time when there is no Temple and no holy service, we cannot but ask: Is it really that important for the Kohen to preserve his purity, especially when this can come at a very high social and emotional price?

This question might echo a similar question from another area altogether: the laws of Niddah (laws pertaining to a Jewish woman’s menstrual cycle).  In recent years, these laws, too, have been subject to criticism.  There are many who feel that the price one has to pay for observing these laws of purity and how they are practically applied in our own times is way too high.  Let me say right from the outset: I don’t plan on dwelling on this point in this short parsha-piece; it is not the place for it.  However, this does not mean that the two examples I have just mentioned have no common denominator.  Indeed, both are modern-day applications of a halachic ‘remnant’ from an area of life that has virtually disappeared.  I would like to take a minute to reflect on this by taking a bird’s eye view. 

It is hard not to empathize with those who may feel somewhat dubious about these particular laws.  Although an entire seder in the Mishnah is dedicated to the laws of purity and impurity, we only observe a tiny fraction of these.  We might not be aware of this in our day and age, but during the days of the Mishnah and the Talmud, the laws of purity and impurity were part and parcel of daily routine.  In much the same way that not a day goes by without one washing his hands in the ritual fashion, saying the blessings or reciting the prayer of Shema Yisrael – such was the case in the days of our Sages when it came to the laws of purity and impurity.  In other words: purity and impurity were realistic concepts; rich in details; meaningful in the most practical sense and very much a part of daily life. 

In what way were they meaningful?  Scholars and intellects are welcome to mull over this question as they see fit, and tackle it from any angle they should choose.  As for me, I believe that by leading a life that incorporates the laws of purity and impurity, one is ultimately able to achieve what our Sages had in mind when enacting the blessings that pertain to every realm of our lives.  An observant Jew recites dozens of blessings each and every day, and, in so doing, he envelopes himself with an awareness of God and feels God’s presence in this world.  The laws of purity and impurity, all of which evolve around many routine functions, add a dimension of holiness and purity to man’s daily routine.  By sanctifying oneself with what is permitted, man expresses his acknowledgement of the Divine. 

It goes without saying that since the destruction of the Temple, these laws have gradually faded out of lives, eroded by time, leaving almost no remnants behind.  Where can we find a few remnants nonetheless?  The answer: in almost every area of life upon which they had had an extensive impact.  Let’s put this more plainly: such laws of purity and impurity that were confined to a very particular area of life and had no impact beyond a limited scope, almost always disappeared (the laws of netilat yadayim, the ritual cleansing of the hands, is an exception to this rule as it was enacted by the Sages and does not originate in the written Torah).  On the other hand, a law pertaining to matters of purity and impurity that had far-reaching implications, and impacted numerous areas of life, usually survived.  Thus, if we see that a particular law of purity and impurity still affects one’s conduct in a cemetery, or the interaction between a husband and wife, this must mean that the initial span of its impact infused it with eternal life and helped it survive till this day. 

However, there seems to be a sting in the tail.  The laws that did survive have been taken out of context and uprooted from their source.  Our modern eyes no longer view the world as one filled with symbols of sanctity; or one comprised of layer upon layer of profoundness.  Instead, we see nothing more than prohibitions.  A Kohen may not enter a cemetery.  A husband and wife may not touch each other for almost half of each month.  The fact that such laws were extracted from their natural setting, or context, and placed into a Yoreh De’ah setting – the section of Jewish Law that practically deals with what is permitted and what is prohibited – created an alienation of sorts, and led people to question whether the application of such laws is still relevant.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that later in our portion the Torah gives an account of all the Jewish Holidays, but does not elaborate upon the special sacrifices offered on each such day (which is not the case in the portion of Pinchas).  Perhaps the Torah wishes to highlight the fact that these Holy Days are a very real part of our lives, even when they are dissociated from the laws of purity and impurity

As already mentioned above, in the scope of this little piece, I don’t feel I am able to offer practical solutions for the questions posed.  My main grief is that some of the laws we have today have been displaced and uprooted, in that they are perceived as absolute prohibitions imposed upon us, and, as such, have lost their immanent beauty.  Nevertheless, I continue to hope and pray that we find the proper way to keep observing the customs and traditions of our fathers, while infusing them with new life. 


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