Purifying Our Technology

Masei Mattot By :  Joshua Heller Posted On Jul 21, 2001 / 5761 | Torah Commentary

Mattot-Mas’ei, which we read this week, portrays the final months of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert, and the skirmishes which would presage their conquest of the land of Canaan. In the previous chapters, the Israelites had had trouble with the Midianites- a nation which posed not a military, but a cultural threat. They attacked Israel not on the battlefield, but with temptation to idolatry and sexual impropriety. In this week’s reading, God commands the Israelites to go to war against them, and the Israelite troops return from battle bearing the spoils of war – human captives, animals, precious metals and household items. Moses, the aged leader, and Eleazar, the new high priest, greet the returning troops with instructions for how to dispose of the spoils.

“The gold, silver copper, iron the tin and the lead (everything that goes through fire) shall be brought through fire, and it will be purified, but it must also be sprinkled with the water of sprinkling. Everything that does not come through fire must be put through water.” (Numbers 31:23).

These instructions, which are applied to the household vessels, describe several levels of purification, both physical and ritual. The technical details can be quite abstruse, but there is also a deeper lesson which goes beyond the rules of the kitchen and speaks to our very survival as a people.

The first level of purification, bringing the items through fire or water, is typically understood to be a purely physical one, to remove the contaminants (unkosher food and pagan sacrifices) which might have remained from the previous use of the item. If traces of these forbidden foods were allowed to remain, they might become mixed with, or impart flavor to, the foods that the Israelites would cook in these vessels. The solution was to cleanse the vessels through exposure to whatever conditions were present when they came into contact with the forbidden foods in the first place. If they were used on fire, then fire would cleanse. If they were used in water, then water would cleanse.

This methodology described by the verse forms the basis for the procedures still used today for kashering vessels, whether for year-round or Passover use, after they have been in contact with a forbidden substance. So, for instance, ovens which come into contact with flame or dry heat are kashered with an open flame or equivalent heat. Pots which are used with boiling on the stove are kashered with boiling water. Utensils which are used at room temperature may sometimes be kashered through cold rinsing. Of course, other principles come into play, since some items may not be kashered at all, while others may merit different treatment because of their absorbency or unique use.

The second level of purification required for the spoils of war is the “sprinkling with the water of sprinkling”- a ritual purification whose actual mechanism is most mysterious, but whose purpose is clear. This ritual, the application of the ashes of the red heifer, is described in Numbers 19 as a way to remove that level of tum’ah (ritual impurity) which comes about through contact with the dead. Obviously, anything brought back from the war zone might have had this kind of contact, and would therefore require this type of purification.

However, most legal authorities read this passage as hinting at yet a third level of purification, namely immersion in a mikvah, a ritual bath of a certain minimum size containing water collected “naturally” without the use of pumps or buckets. For many who use it today, whether in the context of marriage, as an act of piety before a festival, or as converts joining the Jewish people, the mikvah has taken on a deeper valence of spiritual reconsecration, but its original core purpose was to serve as a means for removing various types of ritual impurity.

There is much disagreement as to the exact nature of the commandment, known as tevillat keilim. For instance, some sages, like Ramban, regard it as a divine decree for all generations, that eating utensils acquired from any non-Jewish source, not just war with the Midianites, required immersion before they could be used. Others, like Rambam, see the practice as observed in future generations as a custom mandated solely by rabbinic authority, with the Biblical story serving as a mere hint. Whatever its exact legal status, it is a commandment which is still observed in many communities.

And yet, in the context of the Biblical verse, this commandment seems superfluous; what level of ritual purification could it have provided beyond that of the “red heifer” ashes? What additional physical cleanliness would have been achieved beyond the rinsing or flame-purging? For that matter, what would its place be in Jewish law today, in which the rules of ritual purity and impurity have become largely irrelevant, and our forks and spoons are mass-produced, and probably did not touch human hands, let alone unkosher food, before reaching our homes? Our sages understood that this commandment was no longer about purity and impurity, since it only applied to vessels which were purchased, not those which were borrowed, but rather a deeper dimension applied to the process of bringing an object into one’s home.

In fact, this commandment can serve an important spiritual purpose today as well, and its origin provides the key to that purpose. The conflict with the Midianites, unlike the many others fought by the Israelites, was not initially about territory, resources, or political ideology; it was a struggle of cultural assimilation. As such, the spoils of war remained potent weapons in the conflict. To take the most extreme example, the Midianites had tempted the Israelites to sexual impropriety, and those very tempters were among the captives.

Ever since, Jews have lived in a state of cultural struggle, sometimes explicit, sometimes unspoken, as we retained our uniqueness despite immersion in other cultures. Over time, Jewish society has struggled with, and eventually accommodated, not just major cultural constructs like Greek philosophy, Arabic poetics and modern rationalism, but the diverse and sometimes trivial flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. Jewish educators across the spectrum from Hebrew schools to yeshivot use the “Harry Potter” books in their curricula. The tunes from folk songs creep into the traditional liturgy. The rise of e-mail, CD-ROM and other technological innovations has revolutionized the ways Jews study. Even hassidic sects which shun the outside world once adopted the everyday dress of the medieval Polish nobility, and preserve it as their traditional garb.

One revealing example of these trends coming together is Dror Yikra, one of the songs traditionally sung at the sabbath table. An older generation may object when it is sung to the tune of the “Sloop John B,” a song of homesickness on the high seas made popular by the Kingston Trio and the Beach Boys. In fact, the only reason this modern tune fits these ancient words is that 1000 years ago, the song’s author, Dunash Ibn Labrat, adopted the regular meter of Arabic verse in place of the freer syllabification of earlier Jewish poetry.

The commandment of tevilat keilim is a reminder that in each generation, we Jews encounter aspects of the physical and intellectual world around us that we want to bring into our homes and our lives, but we cannot do so safely without a process of careful consideration. As we enjoy popular literature and music, we should have our “Jewish bifocals” at the ready, so that we see them not only through the eyes of the majority, but through the lenses of own particular set of values. As a rabbi and a technologist, I would advise against dunking a laptop in the mikvah, even if (as I do) you occasionally use it as a hotplate or eat your lunch on it. Even so, when we allow computers to take an important role in our society, we must consider how they can be devoted to purposes which are consistent with the beliefs that we hold dear, not to values which are antithetical to Jewish ideals. Our ancestors fought the Midianites to rid themselves of the dangerous temptations of outside influences. Now, even though we do not declare that new ideas and influences are intrinsically unkosher, we still have a duty to re-envision and reconsecrate them, to put them through fire and water, before we can make them our own.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Joshua Heller

The publication and distribution of Rabbi Warshauer’s commentary on Parashat Mattot-Mase’ei have been made possible by a generous grant from 
Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.