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Sins of Emission?

This leap year provides the opportunity to study Parashat Metzora separated from Tazria, thus dividing time to linger and investigate the phenomena of how cured "lepers" are reintroduced into the community, the treatment of "leprosy" of houses, and responses to male and female emissions. I use quotes, because no one knows what these afflictions really were, and given the topics that may be the final reason some will seize on for passing these issues by. But that would be a mistake if, for no other reason, than this parasha provides reasons why Jewish women have been barred from participation in Jewish ritual.

Chapter 15 provides details of how we are to deal with the problem of becoming tameh or tameah, the Hebrew usually translated as impure or unclean. Once those details are understood, consider how such a society would function. And then mull over which rules have long been discarded and which affect Judaism today.

While some of the male emissions seem to concern disease states, most are normal parts of adult lives. A male who has a seminal emission is tameh, and while a woman is menstruating and for seven days after, she is tameah. The act of sexual intercourse makes both the couple tameh and tameah. While a man is tameh or a woman is tameah, they can transfer that status to people who come in contact with them or objects in contact with their emission.

In the case of a man's sexual emission or intercourse, the period of tameh ends with nightfall, and the method of purging it essentially involves washing the person and any contaminated items. In addition, both men and women must go to the tabernacle with sacrifices of two doves seven days after their state of tameh has ended. One dove is a burnt offering, and the other is set free as a sin offering.

As Jewish rules go, this is not particularly complicated, until you consider how such a society can function. For example, if people who are in this state are not confined to their quarters, then soon everyone in the community could have the condition transmitted to them, and this would put everyone into a state of ritual impurity. However, if everyone had to stay confined to quarters for a day or some shorter period - depending on when evening comes - how could work be done? Given this situation, how would normal marital sexual relations be affected? Sexual relations after nightfall would seem to mean quarantine for at least twenty-four hours.

Furthermore, enforcement requires that everyone self-police and also be honest. In addition, everyone has to trust that all members of the community self-police and are honest. To some degree, staying in one's quarters and not emerging for the day is sending a message about one's recent doings. In addition, the system also offers a convenient excuse for shirking. What seems most likely is that at some point, the system would break down because so much vigilance, time off, honesty, distrust of contact with one's family and neighbors would be required. At some point, it would be easier to accept that everyone would have to get on with life while in a state of ritual impurity, the situation we have been in since the end of the system for using the red heifer to remove impurity.

Consider also the burden created by the need to sacrifice a dove after each impurity is cleansed. Fortunately, doves are cheaper and bred more quickly than bullocks, goats, or lambs, but, still, dove sacrifice on this scale would impose an enormous cost on society.

Every society, when examined from outside seems exotic. In our case, we might ask why it is that, while the rules concerning seminal emissions and dove sacrifice seem to be a dead letter, those regarding menstruation continue to affect and limit women's participation in Jewish rituals and public life.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah