There are two Hebrew concepts, found over and over again in this week’s portion of Metzora, that have no accurate translation in English. The word tumah is generally translated as unclean or impure and the word taharah is generally translated as clean or pure.
In English, unclean and impure carry negative connotations. As a result, there is an often-repeated myth that traditional Judaism stigmatizes women in their childbearing years. This misconception comes directly from the mistaken translation of tumah.
In reality, tumah and taharah are descriptions of spiritual statuses that have no English equivalent. They are not physical concepts. One way of understanding tumah and taharah is that the status of taharah is the status of being ready for a particular spiritual function. Tumah is the status of not being ready.
Taharah can also be understood as being in a state of spiritual openness. Taharah is required before coming into the presence of holiness. Tumah is it’s opposite - being in a state of spiritual closure or unpreparedness.
One moves into the status of tumah through contact with death. The most profound form of tumah is a dead body. There is nothing more spiritually closed than a body without a soul.
A living body has the ability to grow closer to G-d. That’s why, in the Elokai Neshama prayer in the morning blessings, we say. “As long as the soul is within me, I gratefully thank you, G-d.” The dead body, which was once the vessel for the human soul, is no longer able to grow spiritually because it no longer has a soul. Only the living person can thank G-d.
If death moves one from taharah to tumah, what’s the antidote? How does one move from the status of tumah to taharah? Through immersion in the waters of a mikveh. In the time when the Temple was standing, everyone had to immerse in a mikveh before entering the Temple grounds. The ritual washing of a dead body, in preparation for burial, is called a taharah. We see again that water is used to make the transition from tumah to taharah.
A remnant of this exists today in the custom of placing a pitcher of water outside a shiva house so people coming directly from the cemetery can wash their hands before entering. The cemetery is a place of concentrated tumah. People don’t generally immerse in a mikveh when leaving a cemetery. But washing the hands is a remnant of using water to make the transition from tumah to taharah.
Married women who use the mikveh monthly don’t go because they have been near a dead body. The menstrual cycle is not the same as death, but it is a kind of death. More accurately, it is the loss of potential life, which is a corollary of actual death.
Similarly, when woman gives birth, there is new life. But that new life exists outside of her. The woman’s body itself is now bereft of the life that it had been carrying inside itself. The woman experiences a loss of life within herself, which is another kind of corollary, another encounter with death.
The status of tumah comes upon us through various life experiences such as contact with actual death or with events that are linked to death, such as the monthly loss of potential life or through childbirth. Through the waters of the mikveh, a married woman in her childbearing years has the opportunity to re-enter a state of taharah, of spiritual openness and readiness, each month.
The upcoming Passover holiday gives us a chance to focus on the many other connections between women and water. Miriam is one of biblical woman for whom wisdom and power are associated with water. Through the well that was provided in her merit, Miriam supplied the Israelites with water during the prolonged journey through the desert.
For more and more families, placing a Miriam’s Cup filled with water on their Seder table is a way of reminding us about the association of women and water in the Passover story and of the prominence of women in Jewish life in general.
Just as it is associated with women, water is also often a symbol for Torah in the Talmud. So drink up!