Here Comes Mr. Clean (Parsha Tazria-Metzora: Leviticus 12:1-15:33)

mr-cleanParsha Tazria-Metzora is found in what’s regularly called the most boring book of the Bible:  Leviticus.  It includes what many consider the most boring part of Leviticus: the mitzvot on female vaginal/sexual impurity, leprosy, building mildew and various bodily discharges.  Even its dating in the reading cycle suggest a boringness to it, “Man this stuff is boring.  Kinda gross, too. Stick it in some week after Pesach, while everybody is on Spring Break or doing their taxes, when there’ll probably won’t be too many people at the Shabbat service,” one can imagine the ancient sages saying.  

Except that it is interesting.  It was interesting to the Israelites or they wouldn’t have written it down.  It was interesting to Hashem or else he would not have dictated it to them.  Part of what we do here on this blog is about is finding the interesting aspects in the apparently uninteresting parts of the Torah.  Boredom is quite often a product of ignorance.  Children get bored at grown up events because they don’t appreciate what is going on.  Fans of sports and spectator events are interested because they understand the intricacies of the game and the preparation and tactics of the participants, while the uninitiated may be bored.  A believer finds Leviticus uninteresting because they don’t know what’s going on, and if they did know what was going on, they’d be saying “Amen!  Hallelujah!  That’ll preach, brother!”

So what is so important about mildew and icky bodily funk that warrants this direct God-to-Man communique on the subject?  We get a hint in Lev. 15:31: “Thus you shall keep the sons of Israel separated from their uncleanness, so that they will not die in their uncleanness by their

defiling My tabernacle that is among them.”  The type of uncleanness described in Tazria-Metzora was hazardous to the Israelites, but not just because of the innate health hazards of these unclean conditions.  They were hazardous to Israel because of their proximity to the tabernacle of Hashem.  

We have discussed earlier the occupational hazards associated with being God’s chosen people and having the special proximity to God that Israel has.  We also saw in the preceding Parsha a “workplace accident” of sorts where God struck down Nadab and Abihu for offering “strange fire” to the Lord, prompting a statement to Aaron from Hashem similar to the above in Lev. 10:9-11: “Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you come into the tent of meeting, so that you will not die—it is a perpetual statute throughout your generations—and so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and so as to teach the sons of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken to them through Moses.”

In Leviticus we see a sacred protocol the logic of which was common in the Near East but is now foreign to modern readers.  The modern mind makes a distinction between physical cleanliness and contamination that renders people health and unhealthy, and moral and spiritual purity–or a moral stain and opprobrium–within a person or group of people.  The ancient mind made no such distinction.  As Robert Alter writes (drawing from the scholarship of Mary Douglas and Jacob Milgrom)

What goes along with this rigorous setting apart of sacred space is an anxious concern about contamination from the sphere of the profane.  Various body fluids; discharges and deformations of the skin and body caused by disease; mildew and other blights in fabrics, utensils and buildings; violations of moral as well as ritual prohibitions–all these are lumped together in one large general category, according to the hierarchical division of the cosmos imagines here, of profane pollutants. These are thought of as an invisible cloud of contamination, or as some have proposed, a kind of miasma, that has the capacity to infiltrate into sacred space and compromise its holy character, which by definition involves a careful insulation from the realm of the profane.

The tabernacle was the dwelling place of the Deity.  He actually lived therein.  And like any homeowner, the Deity has an interest in keeping his house clean, his neighborhood clean, his property unpolluted, and making sure anyone who came to his home didn’t “track any dirt in”.  Likewise, Israel has it in her interests to keep Hashem–our Neighbor who dwells among us–placated in this respect so that he blesses, does not curse, and does not have his shekhinah depart from his Tabernacle or Temple (as it ultimately does).  Keeping Hashem’s dwelling clean involves, like any other cleanroom or sanitary area, maintaining the appropriate barriers and seals from the unclean.  “Holiness could be achieved, and had to be protected, only by a constant confirmation of hierarchical distinction, by laying out reality in distinct realms and categories separated by barricades of prohibitions,” as Alter puts it.

Except that Israel being able doing so in perpetuity is untenable, with the human situation such as it is, with Israel such as it is.  The “contagion” and “miasma” seeps into Israel.  Eventually Israel becomes contaminated, then the sanctuary of its God.  The cleansing tools of the kohanim in Leviticus–running water, altar fire, various oils, and the blood of mere animal sacrifices–can only go so far to contain uncleanness, and even these count on the human priests doing their jobs right, and can do nothing for the uncleanness surrounding the idolatries, blasphemies and injustices of Israel.  The result is inevitable.  Hashem’s house and neighborhood become too “dirty” to live in.  The Glory of the Lord departs from his holy mishkon, and he allows invaders to rush in to destroy it.

But is this result inevitable?  This kind of entropy is the usual course of entropy in our fallen world.  But this is Hashem we’re talking about.  Can’t he miraculously reverse this process?  Can’t he just make everything clean?

Yeshua can, and he did.  His holiness is an aggressive “holiness on the march.” His cleanness is so clean it cleans everything it touches.  He would touch a leper, and instead of the leper making Yeshua unclean, Yeshua would make the leper clean.  A hemorrhaging woman would touch him, and instead of the blood making him unclean, it would heal the woman.  He would be next to the grave of Lazarus, and instead of the being defiled by the dead, Lazarus would come back to life.  And when death itself came to Yeshua, death itself lost its victory and sting.  Upon his incarnation, sacrifice and resurrection, the world became infected with a new contagion–the contagion of holiness and purity through walking with him.

Scripture makes clear in multiple verses that cleanness has been re-contextualized by Yeshua as not dependant on Levitical strictures, but universally available by his sacrifice and cleansing, even to Gentiles who are foreigners to these strictures. One of the classic proof-texts for this premise is Mark 7:14-23 where Yeshua “declared all foods clean.”  For a good argument on why Jews still have obligations to honor Levitical cleanliness rules I would recommend, to start, David Rudolph’s paper on Mark 7:19.  But regardless of any kosher controversy, the gravity of what Yeshua is saying should not be overlooked.  Yeshua’s use of the epithet here “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” implies he is saying something of prophetic import.  Israel–and the whole world with it–would soon be entering a world without a Temple and its atoning/cleansing abilities, without Hashem dwelling in one person or one man-made tabernacle or temple.  Hashem’s means of dwelling among his people would soon be different.  It would be non-localized and non-corporeal.  And his requirements for the cleanliness required of his “Temple”, the body of Messiah, would be non-corporeal, based on avoiding the defiling corruptions from the heart rather than physical contamination.

So where does that leave the levitical purity commandments? I would propose that, far from thinking of these mitzvot as obsolete, we should consider them prophetic.  The 1st Century Jewish philosopher Philo wrote of comparing Hashem rule of Israel to that of an earthly king.  Though such a king could command every person he sees, he will command his palace servants the most and have special instructions for their appearance and conduct.  Though he has dominion over all the lands he surveys, he would supervise his private residence and resorts the most.  Though all the wealth of his kingdom is his, he will collect taxes and allocate specific funds for royal use.  Thus Israel’s land, people, and resources are specially managed with special mitzvot by Hashem (with greater latitude to other peoples and lands in how they may thankfully and creatively honor God through righteous living).  

I mention this selection by Philo because, in the Age to Come and Yeshua’s physical return to this planet, this will not be a metaphorical scenario.  Yeshua will rule and reign the whole Earth and be Lord over every human being, but will do so from Jerusalem in Israel.  In this sense, Leviticus and the rest of the “ceremonial laws” are an instruction manual for accommodating Yeshua–the condition and appearances he wants for his land and people.  They are the Lord’s personal aesthetic preferences!  By learning and keeping his mitzvot, by creating a Jewish culture where our very personal likes and dislikes coincide with those of Yeshua, we ready ourselves for Israel’s restoration…and his restoration to us.

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