Realizing Our Human Potential

Metzora Tazria By :  Alan Cooper Elaine Ravich Professor of Jewish Studies Posted On Apr 25, 2009 / 5769 | Torah Commentary

This week’s double dose of purity laws is unlikely to top anyone’s list of favorite Torah portions. While the laws may be discomfiting and obscure, however, they also are fundamental to an understanding of biblical theology and anthropology, and they convey a message that transcends their particular details.

The priestly author of Leviticus marks the collection of laws in chapters 11–15 as a digression from the book’s narrative flow. Next week’s Torah portion begins with the words, “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron” (16:1), picking up a thread that was dropped following the report of the young priests’ demise in chapter 10. The intervening laws concerning dietary restrictions (chap. 11), childbirth (chap. 12), skin eruptions and related afflictions (chaps. 13–14), and bodily emissions (chap. 15) seem to stand outside the story time. In addition to their concern with purity and impurity, what those laws have in common is that they address the essential characteristic of human existence, the fact that we areembodied.

In traditional Jewish thought, embodiment and mortality are the principal factors that distinguish us from God. Unlike God, we must take in sustenance (chap. 11) and reproduce (chap. 12) in order to survive, and we inevitably experience physical corruption (chaps. 14–15) and death. Those are ingredients of our humanity, natural concomitants of our embodiment. We strive to constrain and control them and, once every year on Yom Kippur, we attempt to suppress them altogether in a ritual of disembodiment (Lev. 16:29–34).

Concerning God, in contrast, as the popular synagogue hymn Yigdal declares:

אין לו דמות הגוף ואינו גוף, לא נערך אליו קדושתו
God has no bodily form and is incorporeal;
God’s holiness is incomparable beyond measure.

Belief in an incorporeal God is the third of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles. In his “Laws of Repentance” (3.7), Maimonides condemns as a heretic anyone who conceives of God as having bodily form. He also devotes the first chapter of hisGuide of the Perplexed to refuting the view that the references to the “image” and “likeness” of God in Genesis 1 denote God’s physical body. (Ancient Near Eastern evidence, particularly a ninth-century Aramaic royal inscription from Tel Fekheriye, may argue to the contrary, but that is beside the point.)

Maimonides’ insistence on God’s incorporeality evokes an obvious question: if we rule out the possibility that God has any physical form, what does it mean for us to be “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27)? Many commentators have proposed that the “image” connotes some nonmaterial divine quality or attribute that is essential to humanity, perhaps one that distinguishes us from other living creatures. For Maimonides, the distinguishing feature is the intellect, but that is only one of several possibilities.

The priestly author of Genesis 1 conceived the image of God along cultic rather than philosophical lines. The starting point for that conception is the priestly emphasis on the “holiness” of God, as affirmed in the latter part of that line from Yigdal:”God’s holiness (קדושה) is incomparable beyond measure.” Just as embodiment characterizes our humanity, so holiness is definitive of God.

Granted that God’s holiness is to some extent manifest in incorporeality, it would seem unreasonable for the Torah to demand that we be holy. It does so repeatedly, however, in the conclusion to the dietary laws and again in Parashat K’doshim, which we will read next week: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44–45 and 19:2; also 20:7, 26). Being in the “image of God,” we are commanded to strive for the unattainable—somehow to emulate or aspire to God’s holiness.

Because of the disparity between what we are commanded to do and what we actually can achieve, the laws of personal purity are simultaneously dispiriting and empowering. They force us, first of all, to recognize the gulf between being human and being divine. God does not require nourishment: the naive view that the sacrifices are intended to feed God finds no support in biblical law. The unity and eternity of God (Maimonides’ second and fourth principles, respectively) obviate reproduction: as we recite in the Shema’, God is אחד (“one, unique, alone”), in contrast to the generations and families of the gods in world mythology. Finally, it is literally impossible for an incorporeal and eternal God to endure physical corruption of any sort.

Obviously, “God is greater than any person” (Job 33:12), but the Torah also wishes to convey a deeper message. The laws of personal purity provide us with the means to bridge the seemingly unbridgeable gap between ourselves and God, to make our lives more holy despite our innate limitations. Most imitative of the divine ideal are the rites of Yom Kippur, when we act as if we could purge ourselves of physical need and desire. For one day, we symbolically divest ourselves of embodiment. By the end of that day we are vividly reminded of our frailty and imperfection: a single day of “complete rest . . . and self-denial” (Lev. 16:32) utterly wears us out. For the rest of the year, we try to maintain ourselves in a state of purity, both to affirm our relationship with God and to avoid profaning the divine “image” we embody.

In last week’s and this week’s portions, the Torah regulates aspects of human life that necessarily deviate from the divine ideal: eating, reproduction, sex, bodily afflictions, and emissions. The Torah demands that we acknowledge the deficiencies inherent in our humanity and control them. We have to eat, but only what the Torah declares fit for consumption; we will have sores on our bodies, but the way we identify and treat them is important; we are going to have sex, but only when it is proper to do so and with due respect for the gravity of the act. Even childbirth is fraught with impurity in differing degrees, depending on the sex of the baby. Scholars have discussed the significance of that difference for two thousand years without reaching a consensus about it, and it remains as disturbing and provocative as ever.

Both the language of the purity laws and many of their details require updating and reinterpretation. The gendered aspects of purity and impurity that made sense within the priestly system, for example, are problematic in a culture that values sexual equality. The disjunctions between ancient and modern thought are undeniable, and in some cases there may be no way of resolving them. Nevertheless, the broader principles are still relevant. The “image of God” is not a static quality that we possess simply because we are human; it is, rather, apotential that the mitzvot, duly reinterpreted for our time, enable us to realize. The more devotedly we study and observe them, the more likely we are to imbue our lives with holiness and draw nearer to God.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.