The Red Cow: A Feminist Interpretation

Image: A red cow. (pexel.com)

The laws of ritual purity left the daughters of Israel a problematic legacy. No matter how body-positive we may strive to be, the Torah text in Leviticus 15 tells us that the natural function of menstruation regularly render women’s bodies tum’ah, ritually problematic.* Unfortunately, in the past readers have seized upon those commandments, jumping to the conclusion that the people who inhabit those bodies (women) are problematic and perhaps lesser or more dangerous than people with bodies that don’t bleed monthly. This has given rise to folklore and rules that continue to be extremely damaging to the rights of women.

The ritual of the Red Cow in Parashat Chukat may offer a counterweight to negative attitudes toward the menstruating body. The Red Cow is distinct from other sacrifices in important ways:

  • It is a female animal, rather than a male. It is specifically an adult cow. (Mishnah Parah 1.1).
  • It is sacrificed outside the camp, rather than before the Tent of Meeting.
  • A little of its blood is sprinkled toward (but not on) the Tent of Meeting, but most of the blood is left to be burned with the Cow.
  • Shni tola’at, “crimson stuff” is also burnt with the Cow. Shni tola’at means “scarlet produced by the scale insect kermes vermilio.” The ash of this fire, when combined with mayyim chayyim (“living water”) in Numbers 19:17, produces an antidote for corpse tum’ah.

The combination of these elements: a female animal, the complete separation from the usual sacrificial site, the emphasis on blood and the color red (Red Cow, fire, “crimson stuff,”) and the use of mayyim chayyim –— the same water required for mikvaot -— suggest that the ultimate
tum’ah of death may be balanced by a ritual that makes repeated references to the menstrual process!

May we, in studying this ancient antidote to ritual impurity, be led to value the messiness of our human bodies and affirm life wherever we find it!

*For a fuller explanation of tum’ah, which is often translated “impure” or “unclean” but which has nothing to do with cleanliness, see Clean and Unclean: A primer.

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Shabbat Shalom! – Chukat

Image: A red heifer (pixabay)

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat (khoo-KAHT) contains several difficult passages of Torah: the ritual of the “red heifer,” a special purification rite, the deaths of Aaron and Miriam, and a terrible mistake by Moses. These are also stories about the difficult relations between the Israelites and the desert peoples.

As one of the rabbis below points out, the shadow of death hangs over Parashat Chukat. Two important figures die; another learns something about his own death. The news has been very difficult this week: deaths by violence, terrorism, horrors. Torah does not avoid difficult topics, rather it can help us center ourselves to cope with difficult times.

Read these divrei Torah to learn more:

The Gift of Grief by Rabbi Lisa Edwards

Obituary for Miriam the Prophetess by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

The Smith Speaks by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Chukat by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

On Being Effective by Rabbi Peter J. Rubenstein

Out, Out, Damn Tamei!

Image: A red calf. Photo by bluesnap/pixabay.

Moses said to them, “Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Eternal gives about you.” – Numbers 9:8, Parashat Beha’alotecha

In Numbers 9, the Israelites celebrated Passover in the wilderness, following the instructions of Moses. One had to be ritually clean (tahor) to participate in the sacrifice. Some of the men approached Moses with a problem: they were ritually unclean (tamei) “because of a corpse.”

The modern reader may wonder  why they don’t just take a bath? But in fact it’s a serious problem and not easily repaired. We won’t learn details of the problem until Numbers 19, which is another issue* but for now let’s just look at the rule regarding ritual purity and corpses:

He who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days. – Numbers 19:11

There is a ritual for purification, however. First we have to prepare the materials for purification:

This is the ritual law that the LORD has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included— and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow. The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be unclean until evening. He who performed the burning shall also wash his garments in water, bathe his body in water, and be unclean until evening. A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing. – Numbers 19: 2-9.

This is what is known as the “Ritual of the Red Heifer.” Notice that it requires a very special cow, a priest, and the proper setting for a sacrifice. The only such place is the Tabernacle, and then after the Temple is built, the Temple in Jerusalem.

Once you have the ashes, then the unclean person can take action:

He shall cleanse himself with it on the third day and on the seventh day, and then be clean; if he fails to cleanse himself on the third and seventh days, he shall not be clean. – Numbers 19:17

“With it” in this verse refers to the ashes mixed with water, according to Rashi. So we are to take the ashes of the cow, and mix them with water for cleansing. This, too, is a ritual:

Some of the ashes from the fire of cleansing shall be taken for the unclean person, and fresh water shall be added to them in a vessel. A person who is clean shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle on the tent and on all the vessels and people who were there, or on him who touched the bones or the person who was killed or died naturally or the grave. The clean person shall sprinkle it upon the unclean person on the third day and on the seventh day, thus cleansing him by the seventh day. He shall then wash his clothes and bathe in water, and at nightfall he shall be clean. If anyone who has become unclean fails to cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the congregation, for he has defiled the LORD’s sanctuary. The water of lustration was not dashed on him: he is unclean. That shall be for them a law for all time. Further, he who sprinkled the water of lustration shall wash his clothes; and whoever touches the water of lustration shall be unclean until evening. Whatever that unclean person touches shall be unclean; and the person who touches him shall be unclean until evening. – Numbers 19: 17-22

So the person who touched the dead body (to perform a mitzvah) can’t purify himself. He faces a week-long process in which someone else has to mix the cow ashes with water and then sprinkle the first man with the mixture.

To return to Beha’alotecha, this week’s portion, the men who were handling the dead body can’t celebrate the Passover sacrifices on the appropriate day, because it will take a week for them to become tahor [ritually clean.] What are they to do? Moses doesn’t know, so he tells them to wait while he consults with God.

Finally, they get an answer: for people like themselves, or who cannot celebrate Passover because they are away, they can observe Passover a month later! This is the origin of Pesach Sheni, “Second Passover,” which you may have seen on a Jewish calendar.

In the midst of what seems an utterly arcane, impossible set of rituals, we still have this important principle: Torah is not meant to be impossible.

When all seems impossible (How shall these men observe Passover?)  and at other points, Moses returns to the Tent of Meeting to ask God for clarification about rules that don’t quite work. Later on in our history, it would become the task of rabbis to figure out how to make Torah do-able for real live Jews. Or, as teacher and writer Blu Greenberg writes “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way.”

As for the issue of tamei/tahor, ritual purity, that became effectively moot with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, since the whole Ritual of the Red Heifer requires the Temple. The act of immersion in a mikveh [ritual bath] substitutes for the purification ritual of Biblical times. As my Talmud professor Rabbi Dr. Dvora Weisberg used to point out, it is merely a substitute and in fact, since 70 CE, the state of ritual purity is impossible.

What are we to take from this? Ultimately observance is up to each Jew. For some, observance according to traditional rules seems the best way. For others of us – myself included – some rules belong to history. I am more concerned about whether my words and actions are pure than whether my person is in a state of ritual purity. And you, dear reader? Your choices are up to you.

*The Red Heifer and the purification ritual are from Parashat Chukat, three weeks after this portion. One of the curiosities of Torah is that it doesn’t always present things in an order that seems logical to modern, post-Enlightenment minds.

 

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Chukat

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat (khoo-KAHT) contains several difficult passages of Torah: the ritual of the “red heifer,” a special purification rite, the deaths of Aaron and Miriam, and a terrible mistake by Moses. These are also stories about the difficult relations between the Israelites and the desert peoples.

As one of the rabbis below points out, the shadow of death hangs over Parashat Chukat. Two important figures die; another learns something about his own death. The news has been very difficult this week: deaths by violence, terrorism, horrors. Torah does not avoid difficult topics, rather it can help us center ourselves to cope with difficult times.

Read these divrei Torah to learn more:

Use Your Words by Rabbi Eve Posen (VIDEO)

Chukat by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Leadership Lessons from Charleston, SCOTUS, and Chukat by Rabbi Marci Bellows

On Being Effective by Rabbi Peter J. Rubenstein

The Smith Speaks by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (poem)

That Which Heals, Hurts by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

The Fully Lived Life… by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild