Our parsha begins with a restriction on the people for whom a cohen may become tamei, a word usually translated as “defiled, impure, ceremonially unclean.” A priest may not touch or be under the same roof as a dead body. He must remain aloof from close contact with the dead, with the exception of a close relative, defined in our parsha as a wife, a mother or father, son or daughter, brother or unmarried sister. The law for the cohen gadol, High Priest, is stricter still. He may not allow himself to become ceremonially unclean even for a close relative, though both he and an ordinary priest may do so for a meit mitzvah, that is, one who has no one else to attend to his funeral. Here the basic requirement of human dignity overrides the priestly imperative of purity.
These laws, together with many others in Vayikra and Bemidbar – especially the rite of the Red Heifer, used to cleanse those who had come into contact with the dead – are hard for us to understand nowadays. They already were in the days of the sages. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is famous for saying to his students, “It is not that death defiles nor that the waters [of the Red Heifer] purify. Rather, God says, I have ordained a statute and issued a decree, and you have no permission to transgress it.” The implication seems to be that the rules have no logic. They are simply Divine commands.
They are indeed perplexing. Death defiles. But so does childbirth (Lev. 12). The strange cluster of phenomena known as tsaraat, usually translated as leprosy, coincides with no known illness since it is a condition that can affect not only a person but also garments and the walls of a house (Lev. 13-14). We know of no medical condition to which this corresponds.
Then, in our parsha, there is the exclusion from service in the Sanctuary of a cohen who had a physical blemish – someone who was blind or lame, had a deformed nose or misshapen limb, a crippled leg or hand, a hunchback or a dwarf (Lev. 21: 16-21). Why so? Such an exclusion seems to fly in the face of the principle that “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16: 7). Why should outward appearance affect whether you may or may not serve as a priest in the house of God?
Yet these decrees do have an underlying logic. To understand them we have first to understand the concept of the holy.
God is beyond space and time, yet God created space and time as well as the physical entities that occupy space and time. God is therefore “concealed.” The Hebrew word for universe, olam, comes from the same Hebrew root as ne’elam, “hidden.” As the mystics put it: creation involved tzimtzum, divine self-effacement, for without it neither the universe nor we could exist. At every point, the infinite would obliterate the finite.
Yet if God was completely and permanently hidden from the physical world, it would be as if He were absent. From a human perspective there would be no difference between an unknowable God and a non-existent God. Therefore God established the holy as the point at which the Eternal enters time and the Infinite enters space. Holy time is Shabbat. Holy space was the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple.
God’s eternity stands in the sharpest possible contrast to our mortality. All that lives will one day die. All that is physical will one day erode and cease to be. Even the sun, and the universe itself, will eventually become extinct. Hence the extreme delicacy and danger of the Tabernacle or Temple, the point at which That-which-is-beyond-time-and-space enters time and space. Like matter and anti-matter, the combination of the purely spiritual and the unmistakably physical is explosive and must be guarded against. Just as a highly sensitive experiment has to be conducted without the slightest contamination, so the holy space had to be kept free of conditions that bespoke mortality.
Tumah should therefore not be thought of as “defilement,” as if there were something wrong or sinful about it. Tumah is about mortality. Death bespeaks mortality, but so too does birth. A skin disease like tsaraat makes us vividly aware of the body. So does an unusual physical attribute like a misshapen limb. Even mould on a garment or the wall of a house is a symptom of physical decay. There is nothing wrong about any of these things but they focus our attention on the physical and are therefore incompatible with the holy space of the Tabernacle, dedicated to the presence of the non-physical, the Eternal Infinite that never dies or decays.
There is a graphic example of this at the beginning of the book of Job. In a series of blows, Job loses everything: his flocks, his herds, his children. Yet his faith remains intact. Satan then proposes subjecting Job to an even greater trial, covering his body with sores (Job 1-2). The logic of this seems absurd. How can a skin disease be a greater trial of faith than losing your children? It isn’t. But what the book is saying is that when your body is afflicted, it can be hard, even impossible, to focus on spirituality. This has nothing to do with ultimate truth and everything to do with the human mind. As Maimonides said, you cannot give your mind to meditating on truth when you are hungry or thirsty, homeless or sick (Guide for the Perplexed 3: 27).
The biblical scholar James Kugel recently published a book, In the Valley of the Shadow, about his experience of cancer. Told by the doctors that, in all probability, he had no more than two years of life left (thankfully, he was in fact cured), he describes the experience of suddenly learning of the imminence of death. He says, “the background music stopped.” By “background music” he meant the sense of being part of the flow of life. We all know we will one day die, but for the most part we feel part of life and of time that will go on for ever (Plato famously described time as a moving image of eternity). It is consciousness of death that detaches us from this sense, separating us from the rest of life as if by a screen.
Kugel also writes, “Most people, when they see someone ravaged by chemotherapy, just tend to keep their distance.” He quotes Psalm 38:12, “My friends and companions stand back at the sight of my affliction; even those closest to me keep their distance.” Although the physical reactions to chemotherapy are quite different from a skin disease or a bodily abnormality, they tend to generate the same feeling in others, part of which has to do with the thought “This could happen to me.” They remind us of the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”
This is the logic – if logic is the right word – of Tumah. It has nothing to do with rationality and everything to do with emotion (Recall Pascal’s remark that “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”). Tumah does not mean defilement. It means that which distracts from eternity and infinity by making us forcibly aware of mortality, of the fact that we are physical beings in a physical world.
What the Tabernacle represented in space and Shabbat in time was quite radical. It was not rare in the ancient world, nor in some religions today, to believe that here on earth everything is mortal. Only in Heaven or the afterlife will we encounter immortality. Hence many religions in both East and West have been other-worldly. In Judaism holiness exists within this world, despite the fact that it is bounded by space and time. But holiness, like anti-matter, must be carefully insulated. Hence the stringency of the laws of Shabbat on the one hand, the Temple and its priesthood on the other.
The holy is the point at which heaven and earth meet, where, by intense focus and a complete absence of earthly concerns, we open up space and time to the sensed presence of God who is beyond space and time. It is an intimation of eternity in the midst of life, allowing us at our holiest moments to feel part of something that does not die. The holy is the space within which we redeem our existence from mere contingency and know that we are held within the “everlasting arms” (Deut. 33: 27) of God.