A Thought-Provoking Diet

And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be impure seven days; as in the days of the impurity of her menstruation she shall be impure. (Sefer VaYikra 12:1-2)

1. Impurity in human beings and other creatures

This week two parshiyot are read – Tazriah and Metzorah.  The reading continues the presentation that began in the previous parasha – Parshat Shemini.  The overarching topic of the presentation is tumah and taharah – ritual impurity and purity.  Depending on context, the implications of an object or creature’s tumah and taharah differ.   In general, when a person is tamey – contracts tumah – the impurity renders the person unfit to participate in sacrificial service and to consume sanctified foods.  With the restoration of taharah, the person is again fit for these activities.   When other organic creatures are tamey, the appellation means that they may not be consumed.  Creatures that are tahor – that are “pure” – may be consumed.

The Torah begins its discussion of tumah with an enumeration of those creatures that are tamey – that may not be eaten.   Tazria and Metzora continue this discussion and deal primarily with tumah engendered in human beings through natural biological processes such as childbirth or disease.  The discussion emphasizes tzara’at.  Tzara’at is a skin disease that afflicts a person as a consequence of moral degeneracy and renders a person tamey.

2. Tumah, taharah, and the order of creation

The Midrash makes an interesting comment of the Torah’s treatment of tumah and taharah in the previous Parasha and in this week’s Torah reading.  It explains that the order in which the various objects of tumah and taharah are discussed reflects the order of their creation as described in Sefer Beresheit(1).   The reason that this comment is so interesting is that it seems to be only partially accurate.  The Torah’s discussion of tumah and taharah begins with identification of the animals living on dry land that are tahor – whose consumption is permitted.  These animals have both split hooves and regurgitate.   The tamey animals – those that are prohibited – lack one or both of these characteristics.  This is followed by an enumeration of those winged creatures that are tamey – whose consumption is prohibited.  Then the Torah turns its attention to aquatic creatures and explains that the permitted – tahor –  creatures have fins and scales.  Finally, the Torah discusses tumah and taharah – spiritual impurity and purity resultant from natural human biological processes or from disease – as they apply to human beings.

In its discussion of creation, the Torah explains that human beings were created after the other organic creatures.  However, in its description of the creation of these other creatures, the Torah explains that Hashem first created the aquatic and winged creatures.  Their emergence was followed by the creation of land-based creatures.  The last creature created was the human being.  The table below summarizes and compares the order in which organic creatures are discussed in the two presentations:

 

Order of creation

Discussion of tumah and taharah

Aquatic and winged creatures

Land-based animals

Land-based animals

Winged creatures

Human beings

Aquatic creatures

Human beings

 

In short, the common element in both discussions is that each deals with the human being only after discussion of other organic creatures.  However, the two presentations differ in the order in which they discuss these other creatures.  How should the Midrash’s comments be understood?

Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told to you from the beginning? Have you not understood the foundations of the earth?  (Sefer Isaiah 40:21)

Lift up your eyes on high, and see.  Who has created these? He that brings out their host by number, He calls them all by name; by the greatness of His might, and for that He is strong in power, not one fails. (Sefer Isaiah 40:26)

3. Appreciating the wonder of  the created universe

As a starting point, it will helpful to consider the Midrash’s comments more carefully.  The Midrash does not explain why the Torah’s discussion of tumah and taharah follows the order of creation.  However, Rabbaynu Yonah  makes a remarkable suggestion as to the lesson communicated by the Torah in its adoption of the creation order.  He begins by explaining that the above passages provide an insight into the message of the Torah’s account of creation.  Isaiah is directing our attention to the created universe and its creatures as expressions of the infinite wisdom of the creator. Similarly, the Torah, through its account of creation, is advising that we contemplate and consider the remarkable revelation of Hashem’s unfathomable wisdom that is exhibited even in His most simple creature.  We are commended by the Torah to consider the mysteries of our own bodies and the endless genius to be discovered in every function of the human body.  Rabbaynu Yonah (2) adds that the message of the Midrash is that by borrowing this order and using it in its discussion of tumah and taharah, the Torah is suggesting that we also consider the wisdom revealed in the created universe in this context(3).  In order to fully appreciate Rabbaynu Yonah’s comments, another issue must be considered.

For I am Hashem your G-d; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy; neither shall you defile yourselves with any manner of swarming thing that moves upon the earth.  (Sefer VaYikra 11:44)

4. Creating boundaries

As explained above, the terms tumah and taharah in the context of non-human creatures are synonymous with prohibited and permitted to be eaten.  In other words, the terms relate to the creatures as objects of human instinct.

Understanding these creatures in this framework resolves two issues.  First, it provides some insight into the nature of their restriction.  Rav Soloveitchik Zt” l explains that one of the fundamental themes of the Torah’s mitzvot is the establishment of boundaries. The boundaries that we put in place and the limits that we establish differentiate the human being from the beast(4).  One of these boundaries is established by the Torah through its creation of tamey and tahor species – prohibited and permitted species.

The creation of boundaries also expresses another important outlook of the Torah.  The Torah does not admonish us against enjoying the pleasures of the material world.  Instead, it proposes that we experience these pleasures in moderation.  The creation of boundaries communicates the message of moderation and nurtures this temperate behavior(5).

Viewed from the paradigm of boundaries, the order in which the Torah discusses the tumah and taharah of non-human creatures is appropriate.  The discussion begins with those creatures we most desire to consume – land animals.  The discussion progresses to fowl.  Lastly, aquatic creatures are treated.  This is the order that is appropriate in dealing with these creatures as objects of instinctual desire.

5. Tumah, taharah, and human development

It can be assumed Rabbaynu Yonah recognizes that the order in which these creatures are treated is reflective of their appeal to our instinctual desires.  However, his point is that non-human creatures are placed before humans in the discussion of tumah and taharah and this adds another element to the discussion.  It makes the discussion also reflective of their order in creation.  In other words, the Torah is utilizing a dual-determined order.  The overall order is determined by the order of creation – non-human creatures precede human beings.  The order within the discussion of non-human creatures is determined by their instinctual appeal.   What is the message of this dual-determined order?

It seems that according to Rabbaynu Yonah, the Torah is attempting to inform the manner in which we relate to our surroundings.  Instinctual or natural-man relates to his surroundings as objects of instinctual desire.  His assessment of objects and the importance that he assigns to each is determined by its capacity to satisfy desire.  Furthermore, natural-man does not relate to only the external world through this paradigm but also to himself.  The demanding call of his desires is constant and the pressure of desire informs how he defines himself.

It is important to not confuse the natural-man with the primitive.  The term “natural-man” represents an attitude and outlook.  It is not a reference to an anthropological stage of human development.  Natural-man is as common to the twenty-first century as to prehistoric times; he is as common to civilized society as to a primitive jungle tribe.

According to Rabbaynu Yonah, the Torah is directing us to relate to the external world and even ourselves as expressions of Hashem’s infinite wisdom.  The Torah’s treatment of tumah and taharah is designed to encourage us to notice, contemplate, and rejoice in the wisdom that not only surrounds us but is found within us.  Rabbaynu Yonah adds that if we can reorient ourselves and replace natural-man’s instinctual view of the world with an appreciation of this wisdom, then we will be aware of the presence of Hashem’s influence in every creature and every breath.  We will be inspired to thank Hashem and to love Him(6).

6. A two-step process of reorientation

Rabbaynu Yonah is attributing to the Torah the design of a two-step process that encourages this reorientation from the perspective of natural-man to an appreciation of the Divine wisdom revealed in creation.  The process begins with the establishment of boundaries. The boundaries endow the objects of our desire and even ourselves with halachic status.  The external world and the self are converted by the Torah’s laws from the material treated by instinct to objects of contemplation and study.  A cow is no longer just the source of a steak; it is an animal whose consumption is permitted based on halachic criteria, which must be slaughtered properly, and suitably prepared for the table.  The cow becomes the subject of tomes of halachic analysis and discussion.

Second, through endowing the objects of desire with halachic status and thereby, converting them into objects of study, our entire orientation toward these objects and toward ourselves is impacted.  Once we have accustomed ourselves to looking beyond the paradigm of human instinct and desire, we are prepared to consider these creatures and even ourselves from the perspective of creation and as revelations of Hashem’s endless wisdom.  With the achievement of this reorientation and the adoption of a contemplative attitude toward the world and toward ourselves, we recognize the wisdom exhibited in the created universe and we appreciate and love Hashem.

Sources: 

(1) Midrash Rabbah, Parshat Tazria 14:1.

(2) Rabbaynu Yonah of Gerona was a renowned medieval scholar.  He is best known for his commentary on Rabbaynu Yitzchak Alfasi’s Halachot.  That work was actually composed by Rabbaynu Yonah’s students.  He is also the author of Shaarai Teshuvah – an extensive work on the mitzvah of repentance.  Rabbaynu Yonah also composed a series of derashot or sermons on the weekly portion.  These were published from manuscript in 1980.

(3) Rabbaynu Yonah ben Avraham of Gerona, Commentary on the Torah, Parshat Tazria.

(4)Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Festival of Freedom (KTAV, 2006), pp.70-72.

(5)Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Dey’ot 3:1.

(6)Rabbaynu Yonah ben Avraham of Gerona, Commentary on the Torah, Parshat Tazria.