What is dirt ?
Haftarat Shabbat Parah makes the question inescapable, because Ezekiel’s prophecy puts it front and center:
O Mortal, when the House of Israel dwelt on their own soil, they defiled it with their ways and their deeds; their ways were in My sight like the uncleanness of a menstruous woman. So I poured out My wrath on them for the blood which they shed upon their land, and for the fetishes with which they defiled it. I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed through the countries. (16:17-18)
Have no fear. Eventually, “I will take you from among the nations and gather you from all the countries, and I will bring you back to your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and all your fetishes.”
What’s all this about dirt and uncleanness? To be sure, God castigates Israel for the shedding of blood, but comparing it to a menstruous woman makes it clear that this transcends violent bloodshed from unjust wars. What is wrong with biology? What makes a woman’s monthly period dirty?
To modern ears, the answer seems obvious. Dirt and uncleanliness is obviously connected to risk of disease and lack of hygiene. Dirt is unsanitary. But think again. The germ theory of disease, and the concepts of sanitation that came with it, only became dominant in the 19th century. Yet somehow, humanity had a concept of something being “unclean” for thousands of years before that. So what was that concept?
The British anthropologist Mary Douglas, whose classic 1966 work Purity and Danger opened these questions to the modern mind, forcefully urged us to think of uncleanliness as something that transcended sanitation. Instead,
[i[f we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt, then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements.
Sound crazy? It shouldn’t. So much of what we think of as “dirty” is simply something that isn’t in the right place. As my wife never hesitates to remind me, used socks on the floor are dirty; used socks in the hamper are not. Food on clothing is dirty not because it is unhygienic but because it doesn’t belong there. A house is messy not when it is unsanitary but rather when it is disordered. There are “appropriate” places for things, but things are not in their appropriate places, and the result is…well…dirt.
Let us return, then, to the menstruous woman. Yes, I know: suggesting that things are “out of place” means that notions of cleanliness reinforce an inherited hierarchy and the status quo. Douglas suggests as much in Purity and Danger. In the case of ancient Judaism (and its contemporary Haredi/Wahhabi adherents), that means oppressive, unjust and immoral gender hierarchies. Agreed.
But it is far more than just gender oppression. In the menstruation case, what is out of order here? Most blatantly, blood. Blood is not just some bodily fluid that delivers nutrients to organs and carries away waste products. It is the essential life-force. That is why the laws of kashrut forbid us from eating/drinking it. Blood connects kin and generations to each other. Blood is supposed to be in the body. And during a woman’s period, it is not. Quite literally, life is out of place. That is not some sort of primitive sexism. It is, in fact, quite profound.
The rules of purity and impurity shove in our faces the ways in which our world and our own lives are out of place. And with blood, such disorientation is tragic, for our lives are always out of place, almost by the operations of nature. This applies to both men and women because all Israel participates in the symbolic system created by ritual impurity. Something is deeply wrong with the world because impurity cannot be fully expunged from it.
This assessment is both Kabbalistic and modern. Moderns realize that the world is out of place because it operates by a system of “survival of the fittest” – an often vicious process whose unquestioned scientific validity cannot obscure its moral brutality. Kabbalists understand that the life of the world is out of place due to the breaking of the vessels holding the light of creation, a disruption that sends chaos into the heart of the world and also breaks apart the divine masculine and feminine (one more reason why menstrual blood holds such potent significance as life out of place).
Ezekiel’s prophecy also promises a return to the land, but despite the power of its redemptive vision, it does not promise that purification rituals will become obsolete. Just the opposite: Israel will no longer be humiliated by other nations, but it will “follow My laws and faithfully…observe My rules.” (16:27). Purity laws of all kinds will be observed more than ever. Life will remain in some sense out of place. Ezekiel becomes Sisyphus. There will be blood.
Thus, Haftarat Shabbat Parah requires that we seek to cleanse and reorder an unredeemed and unredeemable universe. It demands – it screams – at us: where is your life out of place? How are you failing to keep yourself clean? And no excuses: you won’t fix everything, and you will still have flaws, and sin, and be imperfect, and that doesn’t matter. In what ways are you forgetting your values and undermining your integrity? How are you betraying your best conception of yourself? And how will you – today, now -- remove your own dirt?