An Introduction to Rabbi Hirsch and Tahara

By way of an introduction, let’s explore some general tahara-related themes from Rabbi Hirsch’s thought.

Categories of Tumah

It’s important to distinguish between the two ways the Torah uses the term “tumah.” As Rabbi Hirsch notes in his comments to Vayikra 11:24, there’s tumah that physically defiles our bodies, and an entirely different class of tumah whose impact is symbolic and primarily associated with on our thoughts.

The first, which Hirsch calls טומאת גויות, is caused by eating the meat of non-kosher animal species. The second he calls טומאת קדושות and it refers to ideas that conflict with accessing the temple and the use of offerings, terumah, and temple property. Examples of טומאת גויות are generally introduced by the Torah using the prefix “ב”, as in -לטמא ב, indicating that the tumah is physically incorporated into your body. But טומאת קדושות are introduced using a “ל” – as in ולאלה תטמאו. This, according to Hirsch, suggests that contact with an animal (or human) carcass can lead you to modes of thinking that should force you to “consider yourself” impure (תִּטַּמָּאוּ). This book will focus exclusively on the second – symbolic – class of tumah, how it influences us, and how we are to fight its influence.

Nevertheless, a few brief thoughts about that first category could be helpful. Just why did the Torah forbid the meat of some animal species from a Jew’s dining room table (and from the sacrificial altar of all human beings)? In Beraishis 7:2, Hirsch suggests that those animals that are kosher – or “tahor” – are by nature compliant and tend to submit to the direction and will of humans even without the need to be tamed.

The word tahor, in Hirsch’s etymological system, implies a material that’s receptive and offers no resistance – like a transparent medium through which light can pass. The symbolic nature of tumah, by contrast, can have a dulling, resistant effect through which a person influenced by it would be less inclined to spiritual awakening, and more to purely physical desires. Consuming meat from a source of tumah is, in a sense, absorbing within ones very metabolic system the spiritual dullness of that species’ character.

This is an insight that can be helpful for us even within the limits of our focus. Hirsch’s approach suggests that, within the religious realm, even physical problems are caused – and resolved – by emotional and intellectual discipline. That is not, of course, to suggest that an intrinsic physical problem, like an illness, can be overcome through such discipline, but that its religious consequences can.

Our next job will be to see how that works. For that, the parah adumah will be our best teacher.

The Spiritual Dangers of Tumah

There may be no single idea that stands so resolutely opposed to God’s plans for man than that of a nature that’s dominant and all-powerful. Whether from the perspective of the limits of the human mind and imagination; of the unassailable power of climatic or tectonic energy; of unyielding historical forces; or of the inevitability of death itself – the naturalist sees man as helplessly buffeted by winds far beyond his control.

“How,” asks the dogmatic naturalist, “How can a frail human being hope to employ his moral free will to guide his fate when his very thoughts are determined by immutable laws of biology and physics? How can his actions be moral if they’re predetermined, forced and, ultimately, unthinking? And what can he hope to accomplish when he is, from birth, condemned to the eternal emptiness of death?”

To these questions, Hirsch’s response can be summed up with a single word: Taharah. Here’s how he described the message of Parah Adumah:

“It is a delusion that the beast in man or the body pulsating with life and full of strength cannot be mastered. For this delusion there is no place in our Jewish circle. Outside where the range of human activity ends and the life of nature begins, there is the domain of the unsubdued forces of iron necessity. But on the soil of human activity, in the human sphere living nature must find its master at the hand of man in the service of God. Only under the priestly control of man in such service can the earthly nature which is wedded to the Divine nature of man find an entry into the sphere of man, so as to be forthwith consecrated with him and elevated into an instrument with which to perform effectively God’s will on earth.” (Collected Writings vol. II, page 371)

When a kohen turns his knife on the parah adumah, he is expressing man’s mastery over nature. But not just over some unimportant corner of nature; some weak animal consumed by illness: our kohen stands above the embodiment of powerful, healthy, and energetic nature.

But why? Because whenever a man has contact with human death, morbid thoughts come to his mind unbidden. “One day,” he thinks, “my body, too, will lie there, ready to be returned to the earth. When everything’s said and done, am I really any different than the animals whose bodies also decay into the same soil? Am I not just like animals, bound to nature’s laws in both life and death?” Or, in Hirsch’s own words:

Such a (dead) body demonstrates a human being, or an organism similar to a human being, lying powerless under the forces of nature raging outside him. It, accordingly, awakes the idea that Man has altogether no free will, it brings the idea of death into life, and that Man is a mere puppet in the hands of the physical powers of Nature. (Vayikra 4:11)

Such thoughts, while understandable, are wrong. Not only are the thoughts empirically wrong, but the dark mood they provoke makes healthy inspiration impossible. Under their influence you could, in fact, enter Jerusalem’s temple, stand watching the priests at their life-affirming tasks, even sponsor your own private offering, but gain nothing from it (טמא הנכנס למקדש…). The absolute prerequisite for contact with kodesh is being free from the depressing sense that you don’t control your moral destiny.

Repairing the Damage of Tumah

So the kohen stands next to the wild, full-of-life parah adumah within view of the entrance to the Temple. By killing the parah, he demonstrates human control over that wild, unyoked life. By sprinkling the animal’s blood towards the Temple across the valley, the kohen suggests that animal energy can be directed to enthusiastic and intelligent Divine service. By burning the rest of the animal – along with representations of all levels of natural life (עץ ארז ואזוב ושני תולעת) – he teaches that any natural force that just existed for life, had no permanent existence or significance. Life always survives the coarse material that once served it.

Ultimately, the goal of the parah adumah lesson is not just immortality, but something much greater.

“‘Immortality’ means the freedom of the soul after it has thrown off the covering of the earthly frame. ‘Purity,’ however, means freedom of the soul even during its union here below with the earthly frame. ‘Immortality’ promises that one day death will have no power over the soul removed from earth. ‘Purity’ gives the assurance that already upon earth no force of nature will have power over the pure and devoted soul even in its earthly covering…” (Collected Writings vol. II, page 370)

In more general terms, these thoughts must also define the ultimate goal of all taharah and, thus, of this book.

Working with Torah Symbols

In the Hirsch system, the key to understanding the lessons a mitzva is trying to teach us depends on properly recognizing its organizing structure. The existence of structural limitations in the rules the Torah gives a mitzva suggests that there’s an interpretative context. Thus, as Hirsch points out (Vayikra 11:46), the Torah specifies that:

  • Tzitzis be attached to garments made from the common wool or linen materials.
  • Mezuzos be attached only to buildings that are designed for use as homes.
  • Only labor that demonstrates man’s dominance of nature is prohibited on Shabbos.
  • Only milk and bovine meat are prohibited to be cooked and eaten together (but not milk with deer or chicken meat).

Similarly, the fact that tumah affects only certain classes of keilim tells us that the tumah concept is symbolic and not physical. How, for instance, could you otherwise explain that keilim that are attached to the ground, unfinished, or closely associated with living animals are not affected by contact with the very same tumah sources that would instantly change the status of other keilim? Our job will be to carefully examine:

  • The nature of both those keilim that can become tamei and those that can’t.
  • How tumah is transmitted and how it’s removed.
  • Why the Torah makes such distinctions.
  • How understanding those distinctions affects the way we live.

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