Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Ritual purification after childbirth …symptoms, types, diagnosis and laws of tzara’as of the body and garments…ritual purification of the metzora …offerings…tzara’as of houses… physical secretions …seminal emissions… normal and abnormal menstruation
We think Tumah can best be understood in psychological terms. Yehudah Valladares thinks of Tumah as a state of mind that causes one to question/doubt one’s long held beliefs. Witnessing or coming into contact with death prompts one to wonder about life, about death, about God and about the Hereafter.
Tumah may also be thought of as a state of cognitive loss; a radiating negative energy; a "death" or "dispirited" state during which one is so deeply depressed, apathetic, and/or guilt-ridden (on some level) that he/she no longer has the capacity to enter into any relationship--not with God and not with other human beings.
Contact with death precipitates a state of Tumah. A corpse is considered the "ultimate father of all Tumah," because contact with death triggers a primordial uneasiness, a fear (of one's own mortality?) and a negativism that can absorb all of the person’s emotional energy.(Even medical students report a sense of uneasiness after the first encounter with a cadaver.) Death of a family member can evoke negative emotions including sadness, resentment, anger, feelings of unfairness, and guilt. The person who encounters death is self-absorbed, sad, and depressed. These feelings interfere with one's ability to connect with others.
The Torah's insight into the profound (oft-times unconscious) forces that dominate a human being's emotions and behavior is further evident in the reality that the negativity associated with death becomes diluted the further one is removed from the source. Thus, a person who touches a corpse (called a "Rishon L'tumah") experiences the most intense emotional negativity (i.e., Tumah). As that person comes into contact (e.g., shakes hands) with others, the emotion of the "death association" by the latter is a step removed and diluted. And so on down the line as each Tameh person comes into contact with another person or object, the transmission (emotional response to the original source of Tumah) weakens.
A woman who menstruates, a women who has given birth, and people who experience abnormal sexual emissions (zav, zava) are deemed to be in a state of Tumah because blood and fluids associated with the procreative process represent on some level of the human mind the (potential) death of a human life. Bad and sad feelings result (e.g., postpartum depression) and fill the person with negativity...i.e., Tumah.
Primitive man feared that blood flow from any part of the human anatomy meant illness and/or death. Women especially were considered dangerous and impure, unable to participate in religious ritual. The blood flows of child bearing contained seed and demanded that the woman be separated. Giving birth to a female--who also would eventually experience the “impurity” from the feared blood flows--necessitated a separation period twice that required for a male.
Over the years it has been noted (and, in our generation, said in the name of Rav Solovetchik a"h) that to understand the deeper meaning of a word, look for where that word first appears in the Torah. The first time we encounter the root-word Tumah is in Breishis 34:5 after Shechem's seduction and rape of Yaakov's daughter, Deena. Here the Torah focuses on Yaakov's reaction:
“Yaakov learned that his daughter Deena had been Teemay (defiled)” and “Yaakov remained silent until they (his sons) came home”.
Tumah is the condition that is characterized by a seething rage, deep mental anguish, and a state of speechlessness all part of a galaxy of negative emotions that precipitate questioning of long held beliefs and prevent inter-personal relationships. Yaakov's internal turmoil presumably mirrored that of his daughter.
Tumah exists when a person is in the disease state known as tzara’as, a dermatological disorder characterized by symptoms of coloring, depth, extent. Often, the condition is inaccurately identified as leprosy, based on the Greek translation of the word (scaly).
The condition is not a medical/hygienic one but a religious one, thought to be brought upon a person for having maligned other people (Metzorah =Motze Shem Rah).Only the Cohen had the authority to declare one Tameh. The laws do not apply to non-Jews. A bridegroom upon whom spots have appeared is able to complete his seven days of wedding celebration before seeking out the Cohen’s examination.
Deep in the recesses of our soul we are aware that in speaking/behaving badly towards another our behavior is inappropriate and harmful. Our conscience struggles with his behavior and experiences guilt on some level.Struggling with "one's own demons" causes a person to be Tameh because preoccupation with one's own emotions interferes with the ability to relate to others. Perhaps tsara’as is the psychosomatic manifestation of guilt.
The treatment of tsara’as is also revealing. One is isolated (moves outside the city) and prohibited from socializing with others, presumably to allow for a period of introspection regarding the ramification of one's behavior (a "time out" in current parlance). Other details of this isolation are remarkably similar to the Shiva regulations, when a person struggles with the emotional aftermath of death. The psychological reverberations of death, loshon harah, tsara’as and guilt seem inextricably linked.
According to the Lubavitch Rav, tzara’as is to be viewed as an educational lesson designed to help a person correct his ways and experience a spiritual rebirth. The disease is only skin deep, conveying that it is not a deep-rooted problem. The proximity of these laws to those of childbirth links to the idea of birth and rebirth. The Metzorah will learn not to speak loshon hara anymore (since he will be isolated with no one to speak with) as he silently reflects on his past behavior. He abused his God-given gift of speech by using it to malign others. Now he is given the opportunity to change.