Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Rabbi Jill Hammer considers the connections between impurities, power, and the roles of Moses’ sister Miriam.
The biblical categories tahor and tamei, usually translated “pure” and “impure,” mean something like insider/outsider. One who is tahor can enter the sanctuary, the dwelling-place of God’s presence and the heart of Israelite ritual. One who is tamei cannot. Tum’ah, impurity, can be contracted by a variety of circumstances including contact with dead bodies, menstruation, ejaculation, and childbirth. There are many theories about the nature of these categories — Mary Douglas, for example, who believes that things are impure or taboo because they cross boundaries in an uncanny way, or the ancient philosopher Philo who believed the system of tahor / tamei symbolically imparted ethical concepts. My own current sense, influenced by Avivah Zornberg’s book The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, is that things or entities become tamei when biblical society wants to repress them. (more…)