This week’s Torah reading is two short portions read together, Tazria (Lev.12:1 – 13:59) and Metzora (Lev. 14:1 – 15:33). Both portions deal with ritual purity as it pertains to the conditions of childbirth, certain skin ailments, seminal emissions, menstrual blood and death.
Although the Hebrew words “tumah” and “tahara” mean “pure” and “impure”, they are often translated to English as “clean” or “unclean”. This unfairly targets Judaism as a religion that considers sex and childbirth something that is dirty or undesirable. But ritual purity is a concept that has little to do with actual cleanliness. For example, before we come to the table, particularly for a Shabbat or holiday dinner, it is the custom of many Jews to pour water over their hands and recite a blessing, in order to raise the act of eating from an ordinary act to a holy one. This is not the same act as washing your hands before eating. If your hands were dirty, you would have washed them with soap before performing the ritual act.
Becoming impure, then, is not a state of dirtiness or shame. It is the inevitable result of living in the world and being touched by the powerful forces of birth, death, and illness. Acts of purity turn us, for a moment, from these realities, and towards holiness.