In Praise of Impurity

A priestly revulsion against the body in general and bodily fluids in particular seems to lie behind many of the laws in Leviticus. This week’s portion, for example, records laws for controlling defilement caused by corpses, “an eruption or discharge” and “an emission of semen.” There are also prohibitions concerning a man who has “a defect” such as blindness, “a limb too short or too long,” “a growth in his eye,” “a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes.”

A contemporary debate on this priestly revulsion occurs in a poem by Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who, growing up in a Catholic country in the late 19th century, had direct experience of priesthood. In “Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop,” the bishop takes the priestly position that we should try to.

“Live in a heavenly mansion

Not in some foul sty.”

Yeats has Crazy Jane respond:

“Fair and foul are near of kin

And fair needs foul,”

and then end by reminding the bishop just how intimately related the heavenly mansions are to the foul sty:

“A woman can be proud and stiff

When on love intent;

But Love has pitched his mansion in

The place of excrement;

The capitalization of the second use of the word “love” indicates to me that Yeats is talking about what used to be called profane love at first but sacred love the second time around. The poem ends with two lines that sum up the case for impurity:

For nothing can be sole or whole

That has not been rent.”

Michel de Montaigne, as we might expect, in an essay titled “That We Taste Nothing Pure,” voices a more general and secular version of this viewpoint. With his usual capacity for artful association, he tells us, “painters hold that the movements and wrinkles of the face that serve for weeping serve also for laughing,” and then goes on to confess, “I find that the best goodness I have has some tincture of vice,” and on to the political observation that “for the uses of life and for the service of public business” an “excess in the purity and perspicacity” of the mind is not a good thing. “Therefore common and less highly-strung minds are found to be more fit and more successful for conducting affairs.” I had the feeling after reading this that Montaigne would consider those who have criticized the banality of the minds of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, father and son, to suffer from highly strung minds themselves, the priestly disposition of valuing purity at the expense of more fundamental things.

The priestly concern with purity and defilement seems to me very unlike the rabbinic disposition in the last few centuries. In the chapter on “Rules Concerning Physical Well-Being” in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), there is an appreciative discussion of bodily fluids and the process of digestion:

The food is ground between the teeth and becomes mixed with juice and saliva and is reduced to slags…. Out of the pure parts all the limbs are nourished and this sustains the life of the man and the impure, which are unnecessary, are driven towards the outside.

This appreciation of bodily functions requires acknowledgement in the form of a blessing:

And for this we say in the benediction “Who formest” the following, “And doest wondrously,”… and the waste is pushed outside of the body; for if the waste should remain in the body, it would rot away and cause many sicknesses, God forbid.

The rabbis came quite some distance from priestly revulsion with the flesh! To my mind this rabbinic disposition to appreciate and praise impurity as a necessary part of life is summed up in an ancient midrash, which I have rendered in the form of a blank-verse sonnet:

An Old Story

(from the Bet Ha-Midrash)

It is said:

In Heaven, at the hour before conception,

The Holy One commands a chosen soul,

“Enter that ovum!” But the soul protests,

“I’m pure and satisfied, don’t push me to

pollute myself for that disgusting drop.”

Then the Master of the Universe says, “Soul!

the filth you must be joined with is

good, you were created to be there”

and places it inside against its will.

And after the gestation time is over

the soul again complains it is content

and again God says to it, “The world

is good, and not this womb you’re in, and you,

against your will, crying, must emerge.”

David Curzon is a contributing editor at the Forward.

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In Praise of Impurity

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