Impurity And Torah

In Judaism, we read largely concurrent portions of the five books of Moses during the year. Religious Jews thus tend to measure time not so much by the Hebrew calendar but by that week's Torah portion, which is usually named after the first word in the portion.

Tsara'at (Leviticus 12-14) can be translated "impurity" or "leprosy." The Talmudic sages suggest that frequently tzara'at is the means through which God sends an individual a message of spiritual rebuke.

The following thoughts (which I've frequently rewritten and adapted) are taken from the superb Anchor Bible Commentary on Leviticus 1-16 by Conservative Rabbi Jacob Milgrom:

The Priestly theology posits the existence of one supreme God who contends neither with a higher realm nor with competing peers. The world of demons is abolished; there is no struggle with autonomous foes because there are none. With the demise of the demons, only one creature remains with "demonic" power - the human being. Endowed with free will, his power is greater than any attributed to him by pagan society. Not only can he defy God but, in Priestly imagery, he can drive God out of his sanctuary. In this respect, humans have replaced the demons.

…Humans can drive God out of the sanctuary by polluting it with their moral and ritual sins. All that the priests can do is periodically purge the sanctuary of its impurities and influence the people to atone for their wrongs.

For the people Israel, Jews, impurity was harmless. It retained potency only with regard to sancta. Lay persons - but not priests - might contract impurity with impunity; they must not, however, delay their purificatory rites lest their impurity affect the sanctuary.

The sanctuary represented the presence of God; impurity represented the wrongdoing of persons. If persons unremittingly polluted the sanctuary they forced God out of his sanctuary and out of their lives.

The Priestly texts on scale disease (chaps. 13-14) and chronic genital flows (chap. 15) give ample witness to the Priestly polemic against the idea that physical impurity arises from the activity who must be either exorcised or appeased. Purification is neither healing nor theurgy. The afflicted person undergoes purification only after he is cured. Even though the scale-diseased person does bring sacrifices for possible wrongdoing, the only determinable "wrong" is that his impurity has polluted the sanctuary.

Another example of the way the Priestly legists excised the demonic from impurity is the case of the person afflicted with chronic genital flux (15: 1-15, 25-30). It is the discharge that contaminates, not the person. In Israel, the afflicted person does not contaminate by touch as long as he washes his hands.

To translate these thoughts into an HIV outbreak, it is the HIV that contaminates, not those persons who have HIV. And they do not contaminate by touch as long as they take the appropriate precautions against sharing their virus.

HIV sufferers have not been visited by demons, but by a physical disease. There is no world of demons. There is a creature, however, with demonic power -the human being. To use IV needles, and to engage in risky sex, places those around you in danger. To knowingly have sex with someone when you have a lethal disease that is transmitted through sex is demonic. Thus, the human being can act like a demon. He can defy God, and drive God, the source of healing, out of the community. The way to retain the healing element in a community is by atoning for your sins.

From a Torah perspective, there is one law which rules the universe - and that law is both physical and moral. If we grossly violate God's moral law, there will be physical repercussions. There will be consequences to driving the source of healing out of the community.