Rabbi Evan J. Krame | Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Metzora, Leviticus 14:1-1533.
Television commercials often reflect the current fixations of our society. Remember Ivory Soap, claiming to be “99 44/100%” pure? That soap slogan began in 1882, at a time when Americans expected women to be pure. The logo reflected the preoccupation with virtue.
Purity tests remain part of our culture. However, the application of purity tests has corrupted and concretized the concept of purity into classifications of good and evil, an approach damaging to society and religion.
Purity tests of the late 19th century focused on women’s virginity. Women’s sexuality was subject to harsh judgment, and virginity until marriage was expected. Virginity testing was used to control and punish women. That purity test has harmed women ever since by prejudging sexual ethics and denying women bodily autonomy.
The temperance movement began in the 1800s, equating the consumption of alcohol with impurity. From 1919 to 1933, the United States banned the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. Instead of reforming society, banning alcohol led to an increase in lawless behaviors. These examples of striving for purity demonstrate the dangers of equating purity with goodness.
The roots of purity movements are deep in Jewish history. In 15th-century Spain, purity of blood was an obsessive concern. During the inquisition, Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism, be expelled or be put to death. Fanatical Catholic leaders continued to have hatred for those who converted, the “new Christians” because of their belief in the unfaithfulness of the “deicide Jews” (God-killing Jews). It was believed that this unfaithfulness persisted and was transmitted, by blood, to their descendants, regardless of the sincerity of their conversion to the Christian faith. Consequently, Old Christians “of pure blood” considered New Christians impure and therefore morally inadequate to be members of their communities. Author Jerome Friedman explains that medieval anti-Judaism became modern anti-semitism through these concepts of purity.
Purity tests in our times abound in politics. Activists on the extremes of the political spectrum demand adherence to ideologies or philosophies. Absent strict devotion to party principles, leaders are subject to alienation and denigration. Even more dangerous is the cult of personality that demands 100 percent faithfulness to a leader. The application of purity principles has stratified and calcified political positions. The ability to compromise has given way to the opportunity to demonize.
We have observed this trend in discussions about Israel in the Jewish community. Advocacy for Israel has given way to condemnation of those who disagree with you about Israel. The discourse about the Holy Land has become most ungodly.
In this week’s parshah, purity principles are applied to houses as well as people, to women after childbirth and men after seminal emissions. In none of these instances are people making choices to be impure. The dichotomy between purity and impurity is part of the rhythm of living. The Torah’s purpose is not to vilify the impure but to lift us up to holiness. God asks that the Israelites be put on guard against impurity, not suffer because of it.
Jewish life should also be a striving for purity of intentions. Our tradition demands that we care for the stranger, help the widow and orphan, and follow paths of peace. Nowhere are we directed to opine on the purity of others, whether it is their sexual or political proclivities. Meaningfulness in our lives does not come from testing others. Instead, we should be challenging ourselves.
As history demonstrates, purity tests are harmful to individuals and to society. Our Jewish approach to purity is a striving for holiness, focused inward and not against others.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame is rabbi of The Jewish Studio.