For several weeks, we’ve plodded through unsettling descriptions of genital discharges, fungi-infested homes, postpartum impurity, skin discolorations, corpse contaminations and all manner of priestly diagnoses and prognoses. These sections of Leviticus are as foreign to modern readers as a flock of walruses flying over Manhattan and far less exciting. It would be easier to follow a hummingbird through a tropical forest than to keep track of the many decontamination rites.
Yet, after the Torah devotes five baffling chapters to the intricacies of defilement and purification (Leviticus 11-15), it is only in this week’s portion that we reach the coda of contamination problems. What happens when the Sanctuary becomes impure?
In the aftermath of Aaron’s two sons dying on Sanctuary grounds, God instructs Moses and Aaron how to facilitate a Temple purge. What is described is a day-long saga of sin offerings and burnt offerings, multiple ablutions of the High Priest, the necessity of sprinkling blood all about the premises and, of course, the enigmatic journey of the scapegoat — laden with Israel’s sins — into the desolate wilderness (Leviticus 16).
As these rituals (with a few additions) were performed yearly on Israel’s holiest day — Yom Kippur — we treat the whole section with solemnity. But lumped together with moldy homes and skin discolorations, these laws raise many questions, especially when we consider how the defining rituals of the Day of Atonement are spurred by death. The demise of Aaron’s sons is a strange impetus with which to anchor the holiest of Israel’s hallowed days. When we finally finish reading, we are still left with our original questions. What is all this defilement? Why are these laws so important within Jewish history and biblical faith? And have they anything to teach us moderns?
Before we answer, a word of explanation. In the Bible, impurity is always associated with death. If one comes into contact with a corpse, one is rendered impure for seven days (Numbers 19). If one suffers scale disease (metzora), akin to Moses’ sister, Miriam, “and looks as dead,” one must undergo seven days of purification outside the camp (Numbers 12:12-15). Discharges of the body, normal or otherwise, carry with them, if not the specter of death, at the very least, a grave concern about the seepage of life, and thusly render varying degrees of impurity. Couples who have been intimate would wait a day before they could enter the environs of the Temple. Women who have given birth — an often life-threatening ordeal — could wait in excess of two months before being permitted to re-engage in cultic life (Leviticus 12).
The length to which the Torah goes to decouple death from Temple worship is certainly part of a wider cultural polemic. In ancient Egypt, all religion was centered on the afterlife. The central priestly work was titled “The Book of the Dead.” Their greatest edifices, the pyramids, equipped their occupants with implements for the netherworld. In contrast, Israel’s priests were warned to stay away from the dead or even to give the appearance of mourning (Leviticus 21:1-6).
But a narrow examination of defilement is a lot like staring at the stars through the wrong end of the telescope. As the proverb goes, we risk missing the boundless forest to sit beneath a single tree.
The real novelty of Leviticus is not the specifics of this or that diagnosis, but the determination exerted to render all Israelites pure. In a society where defilement is accepted as a given, in a religious system that banishes pollutants from the Temple cult, chapters 11 through 16 of Leviticus are a battle script whose goal is to reimmerse every individual into the religious life of the Temple. Thus, week after week, the priest visits the leper to see if his or her prognosis has changed. There are rituals for fathers returning from battlefields and for mothers who have given birth. Layperson and priest, God’s home or your home, no person or place is without remedy.
It is striking that the implements of purification are symbols of life. All pollutants immerse in “living waters.” Red, the biblical color of life, shows up time and again in numerous rituals. Ashes from a red heifer, scarlet yarn, red cedar wood, hyssop (with its reddish flower) are immersed in living waters or blood, which are then sprinkled on the impure. On Yom Kippur, it is not so much blood per se that purges the Temple of its impurity; symbolically, it is life itself that expunges impurity.
It is worth mentioning that the scapegoat is also called a “living goat” before it is sent to the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20); similarly it is a “living bird” that carries the leper’s impurity to a distant place (Leviticus 14:7). In ancient Israel, living is measured by one’s proximity to God, while impurity was a sort of death because it meant absence from communal religious life. It is hard to fathom, but imagine if we felt as strongly about getting ourselves to synagogue. The priests understood this: No Jew left behind.