Clean and Unclean: A Primer

Grafitti

Not Jewish Grafitti (Photo credit: tricky (rick harrison))

Apparently there’s a trend somewhere in Internet-land to label foods “clean” and “unclean” by how much processing they have undergone. I just read about it in a great post over on Tumblr. This inspired me to go dig around at the root of this nuttiness, which appeared as a way of understanding and managing holiness in the Hebrew Bible and then made its way into the popular culture of many different eras in wildly mutated forms.

The Hebrew word often translated into English as “clean” or “pure” is tahor (טָהוֹר) pronounced “tah-HOR.” It first appears in Genesis 7, where some animals are said to be tahor. In that context, it seems to mean, “when the Sinai covenant comes into effect, this animal will be OK to eat under certain conditions.” The Torah is not clear how Noah is able to understand what God is talking about, but there are many things in Torah to ponder.

Other animals are designated tamei (טָמֵא) pronounced “tah-MAY.” These will later NOT be OK for those under the covenant to eat.  (For more about Jewish dietary law, check out this article in MyJewishLearning.com.) This word is usually translated into English as “unclean” or “impure.”

Later in the Bible, when we get the rules for the Temple sacrifices, it gets much more complicated: tahor and tamei will have to do with states of being that cannot ever come into contact without consequences.  Think “matter and antimatter,” to get a feel for the (theoretical) mess it can make. One either overwhelms the other, or they explode.

Both concepts have to do, at their heart, with the energy of life, or life force. Tahor is the “charge” of the Holy One, the source of Life itself – so anything that comes into contact with God, or the place in the ancient Temple where God was understood to dwell (the Tabernacle) is tamei. (Stop and take that in before you read on.  God / The Holy One / God’s dwelling / Tahor.

But in the eyes of our ancestors, there were also things with a different “charge,” a different connection to the life force that had to do with the created world:  blood, dead bodies (human or animal), and secretions from bodies (menstrual blood, semen, afterbirth, etc.) These have the tamei “charge” and must be properly neutralized before coming into contact with things that are tahor. Hence the rules about menstruation, noctural emissions, sex, eating rare meat, etc. Those rules made it possible for women to be protected at vulnerable times, like menses and after childbirth, and time to bond with infants, especially female infants (who were doubly vulnerable, since they were less valued by the society as a whole.)

The process of neutralization is usually translated as “purification” which further muddies the water for English speakers.  In fact, there is no way in the present time to neutralize the tahor charge; the tools for doing it were lost when the Temple was destroyed in year 70 of the Common Era (aka 70 A.D.) The Temple sacrifices were the “technology” for making things pure, that is, for neutralizing the charge of tamei.

From my Reform Jewish point of view, then, it is all moot. We are past the era of tamei/tahor. In other words, don’t worry about it. It can be a very useful metaphor for looking at other issues (I’ll write about those another time) but in the 21st century, there’s no need to worry about ritual impurity.

However, all this ritual tech talk has crept into our thinking and popular culture in ways that can be horrifically destructive. Just as tamei doesn’t mean “impure,” it also doesn’t mean “dirty” or “bad.” Menstruating women are not bad. Women who have given birth are not bad. Men who have had a noctural emission are not bad. Rare steak is not kosher, but it, too, is in no way morally bad or dirty.  We can have ethical discussions about foods, certainly, but talking about “clean” or “dirty” food just muddies the water. (Pun intended!)

Bottom line, the take-away concept:  When you read “pure” and “impure” or “clean” and “unclean” in the Bible, remember that these are iffy English translations of techie jargon from more than 2500 years ago.  They do not mean “good” and “bad.”

Extra credit concept: When someone starts throwing around “clean” and “dirty” in reference to anything more complicated than a kitchen floor, be suspicious. They’re using iffy translations of 2500 year old tech jargon to sell you some judgments you may or may not want to buy.

Caveat emptor! (Buyer beware!)

[For the explanation of the concepts around ritual purity in Torah in language having to do with the life force, I am indebted to Rabbi Judah Dardik. However he is in no way responsible for where I have gone with that concept; my words are my own, so blame me for them, not him.]

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