The ritual of the Red Heifer is one of the most mysterious rituals in the entire Torah. (I have no doubt that this first sentence has been written many times before, but the ritual is so mysterious — so contrary to “logic” — that it is virtually impossible to write about it without commenting on its mystery at the very beginning.) The nature of the mystery is simply explained: The human corpse is, according to the Torah, the most powerful source of ritual impurity there is. It is so powerful that the corpse can render the one who contacts it himself a source of impurity for other individuals or objects he touches. In the language of the rabbis, the corpse is “the grandfather [or, if you prefer, the “big daddy”] of all impurities” (“av avot hatum’ah”). The only way to eliminate corpse impurity is through administration of the waters produced with the ashes of the Red Heifer; that is how powerful these waters of purification are. (Yes, this means that today, in the absence of the Red Heifer waters, everyone is impure by virtue of “contact” with the corpse, and that impurity is impossible to remove.) Yet anyone who is involved in the production of the Red Heifer waters is himself rendered impure. “The impure one is purified and the pure one is rendered impure” — how could this be?
To me, the only way to make any kind of sense of this paradox is to recognize that power sometimes overwhelms a system, and when an input is too powerful, the logic of a system cannot be maintained. In the Torah’s purity system, I want to argue, the impurity of the corpse represents a kind of systemic overload. Hence the “illogic” of the outcome. But if this is true, the real challenge is to understand the overload: Why is the impurity of the corpse so powerful? If we understand this, we can begin to understand the Red Heifer paradox.
Of course, corpse impurity is part of a broader system of impurity, so the real question is: What does it signify when the Torah marks something as “impure” (“tameh”)? Needless to say, innumerable answers to this question have been proposed, and the debate concerning the best explanation of the Torah’s purity system will continue forever (I do not exaggerate). But there is one answer to this question that has barely been mentioned in the literature — whether ancient or modern — and it is an answer that, to my mind, provides the key to making sense of the whole thing.
I am referring to the answer offered by Rabbi Eliezer, a teacher of Talmud, to the question, “What is the difference between the impure and the pure [animals]?” “The pure one, its soul belongs to heaven and its body belongs to its [human] owner, but the impure one, both its soul and its body belong to heaven” (Mishnah Nedarim 4:3). Before fully articulating what Eliezer says here, I must emphasize the relevance of this comment to our immediate question. Interpreters of the Torah’s system have often distinguished between the “impurity” of the Torah’s impure animals and the impurity of things like the corpse or menstrual blood (or the blood of childbirth!). They have insisted that, despite the fact that the same Hebrew term is used for both, the meaning of the term in the two contexts is not the same. This is the only way most have of making sense of the Torah’s notion of impurity. But the Torah doesn’t admit of such a distinction; it is an imposition of the commentators, who are otherwise at a loss to connect what seems to them unconnected. If the Torah doesn’t make this distinction, neither should we. What we say about the impurity of impure animals must relate to what we say about blood impurities, and vice versa.
So what has Eliezer said? He has suggested that the impure animals are “impure” because they belong, in their entirety, to God. In other words, marking something as “impure” means marking it as being somehow in God’s realm, touchable but in some profound sense inaccessible to us. We cannot eat the “impure” animal (the pig, for example) because God, its creator, has not given us the right to do so. Its impurity marks it as “out of bounds.”
By the same token, life and death are in the realm of God. As the Bible says repeatedly, in one form or another, “God gives life and God takes away life.” Both, therefore, are marked as “impure.” The same is true of menstrual blood, which emerges from “the source” of human life, deep in the womb, and the same is true of birth blood — the blood that issues forth when a woman gives birth. Not surprisingly against the background of this explanation, it is also true of semen, which likewise contributes to the making of life. In contrast, neither urine nor feces is impure because, while both might be “unclean” (an unfortunate translation of “tameh”), neither is in the realm of God. But “leprosy” is impure because it was understood to be an outbreak of death in life, and, as we have said, death is in the realm of God and is therefore impure.
But why is death so powerfully impure? The answer, I think, is that, under ordinary circumstances (putting aside war or self-defense, for example), humans should have no place in death. It should be entirely the work of God. By contrast, humans do have a place in reproduction and childbirth. By marking death as so powerfully impure, the Torah signals to humans to stay away, to leave to God what is fully God’s.
Because of death’s power, it is difficult to overcome the impurity it generates. The Torah provides a formula for overcoming its impurity, but the impurity has a remainder — one that affects those who prepare the purifying agent. If you will, the impurity of death “leaks,” and when you are involved in “cleaning up” this impurity, it is inevitable that you will be stained in the process. There is no protective garb that could be powerful enough to avoid these consequences.
So, in a world where impurity is technically irrelevant (there is no sanctuary to avoid in our impurity) — and in a world where we are all impure in any case — does any of this matter? If we see “impurity” as a signpost, or even as a boundary marker, the answer is an unhesitating “yes.” “Impurity” asks us to notice God’s realm and exercise extreme care in its presence. Yes, this system says, God claims the territory of pregnancy and birth and death, and we should not forget that. God even claims the pig and the lobster — just two among thousands of God’s creatures that God retains a full claim on and which we, therefore, may not consume. The purity system signals what should be (but is not) obvious to us: The whole earth may not be the Lord’s, but much of it still is.
David Kraemer is Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian and professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary.