Can Leviticus’ Purity Laws Help Us Understand #MeToo?

A word about ritual purity, for context: the Torah reflects a notion that certain actions and physical conditions produce an invisible, airborne pollution that invades the Mishkan, the Sanctuary, the dwelling place of the divine. If the impurity is not disposed of, or in the case of a bleeding woman, completed, the accumulated pollution could cause Israel’s God to abandon the Sanctuary, an event thought to bring about national disaster. 

Parshat Tazria deals with the impurity of the woman who suffers from bleeding after childbirth. The Torah is not concerned with the fact that the woman will likely never sleep well again nor go to the bathroom on her own for years to come, which most mothers recognize as a real source of suffering. The Torah is concerned with blood. “Blood and urine, calcium and iron.”

Because the bleeding mother can pollute the Sanctuary, she must not “touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary during certain prescribed periods” (no pun intended).  Being denied access to holiness extends to all whom the Torah considers impure… tamei

The rabbis were very organized, and methodical. Everything fit into its category. There was life and there was death. In the Torah, blood is synonymous with life. It’s why we don’t eat an animal with it’s lifeblood still in it. Otherwise, it’s not kosher. Vaginal blood had an even greater significance for some of the ancients who thought that it contained the seed that united with the male seed to produce a human being. But as menstrual fluid, it signified a lost opportunity to create life, thus linked with the process of death. And so it would render the woman impure, tamei…a pollutant.  Not generally how any woman would choose to be described. As one who is tamei, a pollutant, a woman was not only prevented from serving in the priesthood or coming in contact with a Torah, but she could not have relations or physical touch with her husband during the time of her bleeding and for several days following. 

But, modern Torah commentator Gunther Plaut offers us a different perspective and says that the laws around purity, known in Hebrew as niddah, existed to safeguard a woman and promote her good health. He writes, “The law protects women form the importunities of their husbands at a time when they are not physically and emotionally ready to be intimate.”

Maybe our tradition understood once upon a time that women needed space and some men don’t always understand boundaries. The Yiddish Torah commentary Tz’enah Ur’enah goes even further to draw a parallel between the period of impurity following childbirth and the period of mourning following a death. It reads: The Torah states that a woman is in a state of impurity for seven days after giving birth. Similarly, there is a seven-day period of mourning for the dead. All is counted by the number seven, the days of shiva. A comparison is drawn between a woman’s state following birth with that of a mourner. A mourner is not in a physically altered state during shiva, but rather in a spiritually altered or emotionally altered state.

Given all the conversation these days around #MeToo and #TimesUp, I can’t help but read this section of Torah differently this year. I asked my kids what they thought about this. They questioned: “Why should she be considered impure in the first place?”

Women are impure according to our tradition because we have been told that we are, thank you Rabbis and Sages of old. But perhaps it’s not the blood that renders us impure, but the unwanted, unsanctioned, uninvited touch that comes at a time, as Rabbi Plaut suggests, when women don’t want it. Perhaps it’s not the woman who is polluted, but the touch itself. 

We find ourselves living in a time when women are becoming more comfortable calling out male touch that they consider tamei… not ok. Unsanctioned. Uninvited It’s not just touch.  It’s the comments. The attitude. The assumptions. A large focus of our recent rabbinic conference in Cincinnati this past week was on the experience of female clergy in the rabbinate. Our male colleagues ranged from surprised to stunned to jaw-dropped when they learned how different it could be, this experience of being a female rabbi.  Congregants almost never refer to a male rabbi as “honey” or “sweetie.” It’s much less common for a female rabbi to even be addressed as Rabbi—first name feels appropriate when it does not with a male rabbi. Male rabbis are rarely complimented on their fashion, figure or fluctuating weight. For female rabbis, it’s practically a mainstay of the weekly oneg. 

So much of this is about power. How does a female clergy member say to her male parishioner that she doesn’t like the hug that feels too long or the kiss on the cheek that lingers when she essentially works at the pleasure of every member she serves? What we see happening today, I am certain, is about a shift in power. Women finally feeling comfortable enough to say we have the power to tell others when it’s not okay, when it doesn’t feel right, when it renders us powerless.

And yet, I worry that in our power shift, in this pendulum swing, are we blurring the lines between affection and aggression? Are we scaring boys and men away from genuine expressions of caring? Rather than just telling boys and men “don’t touch me in a way that makes me uncomfortable,” we may need to empower ourselves and our girls to articulate a message about what makes them uncomfortable and to articulate it in the moment. 

None of this will be easy. We will need to all exist in an uncomfortable place of hyper-sensitivity. Men and boys will need to ask if a hug or kiss on the cheek or physical touch is welcome. And women will need to respond honestly and without fear of reprisal. We are essentially at a new beginning here. And all beginnings are difficult. But this may be the start to ridding our sacred spaces of any pollutant, any impure touch or comment or gesture. I think our tradition hits the proverbial nail on the head when it suggests that impurity causes God to absent. When power is abused and one person is made to feel dismissed, degraded, less than because of the actions of another—I think God is absent. 

Human touch is instinctive. We know that babies and children thrive at greater rates when held, and experience higher rates of aggression later on when they aren’t. Hugging alone raises our oxytocin levels, reducing stress, heart rates and blood pressure, even strengthening immune systems. Touch improves clinical symptons in people with eating disorders and burn victims. We signal compassion through touch, creating feelings of trust, generosity and empathy. 

#MeToo is not intended to eliminate communication and connection, but to improve it. It’s meant to differentiate between things that intimate couples do, lovers, and how friends or strangers interact. And there’s a difference, in case any of us are unsure. #MeToo also asks us to grant misunderstanding to an overstepping of intimacy, not violation. It asks us not to presume ill intent into a warm gesture. It just requires me, as a woman, to tell you when it doesn’t feel good, makes me feel uncomfortable or diminished, and expect that you will think more of me for my honesty.

It would be a violation of how God created us, I feel, if we brand all physical touch as an assertion of power. Some don’t know the difference, but many of us do. We are the torchbearers for ensuring that our sacred spaces, that all of our living and work spaces, are tamei-free. 

We can ensure that the divine Presence dwells among us in the way we speak honestly with one another and respect each other’s boundaries. 

Adapted from a sermon delivered at Congregation Micah.