Our parshiot, Tazria and Metzora, focus on the halachot of tumah and taharah (the Laws of ritual purity and impurity), some of the most complex subjects in the Torah. An entire section of the Mishnah is entitled “Taharot” (“Purities”), and page after page of the Talmud discusses the intricacies of this fundamental area of Jewish law. Unfortunately, however, very few people today, regardless of their level of intellectual acumen and scholarly achievement, have mastered this area of study.
This lack of mastery was noted as early as the 12th century by the Rambam (Maimonides), in his paradigm-changing work, Commentary on the Mishnah: “And you know that today, because of the multiplication of our sins, that if you were to encounter the leaders of the yeshivot throughout the Jewish people, and all the more so, those of the various synagogues, you would find that this entire subject remains difficult for them. This is the case, [even though] there are many explicit Torah verses and Mishnaic passages [that discuss this area of Halacha] and sources that are even clearer and simpler than these works.
Perhaps the challenges we face when encountering tumah and taharah stem from the inherent nature of these laws. The best-known example of this category of commandments is the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer), which the Torah introduces with the famous words: “This is the statute (chukat) of the Torah which the L-rd commanded, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid’.” (Bamidbar 19:2) From the Torah’s use of the term “chukat,” we learn that the Parah Adumah is a statute, in contrast to the prohibition of murder, for example, that is a mishpat.
The Rambam defined the main difference between these classes of mitzvot: “The mishpatim are those commandments wherein their rationale is revealed and the value that obtains as a result of their performance is manifest in this world. For example: the prohibitions of stealing and murder, and the obligation to honor one’s father and mother. [In contrast,] the chukim are those commandments whose rationale is unknown.”
By definition, as chukim, the rationale of tumah and taharah is unknown. Yet, there is more at stake here than our failure to discover the underlying basis of this area of Halacha; in actuality, there are no rationally-conceived principles as to why something renders an object or person tamei (ritually impure) or tahor (ritually pure). These are not physical processes; rather, the consequent changes in status are brought about through the absolute will of Hashem. The following Midrash sheds light on this matter:
“[Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s students] said to him: ‘You dismissed the [the question of the non-Jewish inquirer regarding tumah and taharah] with a reed [in a simplistic manner,] yet, how will you respond to us regarding the same inquiry?’ He said to them: ‘The dead person does not [in some physical manner] render [a person or an object] ritually impure, and neither does water bring about ritual purity [in a physical fashion,] rather, both of these effectuate [these] changes based solely upon the edict of the Omnipresent One (gezeirato shel Hamakom). For the Holy One blessed be He declared: A statute I have proclaimed! A prohibition I have declared! And you have no permission to violate my edict’.” (Pesikta Rabbatai, Ish Shalom edition, Piska 14, Parah)
It appears that the Rambam was strongly influenced by this midrashic passage, and utilized it as the underpinning for the following halachic decision:
“It is a clear and explicit concept that the various forms of tumah and taharah are a divine decree of the Torah. They are not in the class of those matters wherein man can use his intellect to make determinations. [Instead,] they are in the category known as chukim. So, too, when it comes to the instance of immersion in a ritual bath (mikvah) to remove ritual impurity — it is in the category of chukim. This is the case since ritual impurity is neither dirt nor bodily excretions that will be removed by the water – rather, the purification process is a divine decree of the Torah – and the entire matter is dependent upon one’s intention (kavanat halev) [and not just the physical immersion].” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Mikvaot 11:12)
At this juncture, the Rambam provides us with a startling philosophic and spiritual tour de force. In relatively few words, he enables us to gain a deep insight into the elusive world of tumah and taharah and its meaning for our time:
“Nonetheless, the Torah provides a hint of understanding [of tumah and taharah]: Just like an individual with the proper intention to purify himself once he immerses himself becomes ritually pure, even though nothing new has been created in his body, so too, one who has the intention to purify his soul from spiritual impurities such as wicked and evil thoughts, since he has made a heartfelt decision to remove himself from those shameful ideas, will be able to bring his soul back to the waters of pure and unsullied thought. … May Hashem in His great mercy purify us from all inadvertent and purposeful sins, and from all manner and variety of guilt.” (Ibid.)
In my view, the Rambam is teaching us that the ultimate purpose of the body of law focusing upon tumah and taharah is to serve as a model for how we can engender substantive change in ourselves, in order to become better than who we are today. The laws of tumah and taharah, therefore, offer the greatest hope known to the Jewish people, the hope that Hashem will help us return to Him in spiritual purity so that we may glorify His Name in the world. As Rabbi Akiva taught us so long ago:
“Joyous are you O’ Jewish people, before Whom are you purified, and Who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven. As the texts state: ‘And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you will be clean; (mayim tehorim u’tahrtem) from all your impurities and from all your abominations will I cleanse you,’ (Sefer Yechezkel 36:25) and ‘The L-rd is the source of the hopes of Israel (mikvei Yisrael)’.” (Sefer Yirmiyahu 17:13, Mishnah Yoma 8:9)