The Shuvah Project #29 — Defiled

New to The Shuvah Project? Find out what it is and why it’s necessary. 

In this way you will separate the people of Israel from their Tumah, so that they will not die in a state of Tumah for defiling my Tabernacle which is there with them.

-Leviticus 15:31 

Section One (Parsha Debrief):

This week’s Parsha (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) contained: two chapters and two topics: (1) laws regarding a woman who becomes impure after giving birth and (2) the details of diagnosing a skin disease.

In the Midweek Reading Guide, we said we’d focus on the skin disease. That’s partly true. It will be the major focus, but over the course of the next two weeks. First, we need to better understand the overarching idea of cleanliness and uncleanliness. 

I’m just going to come out and say it… I took issue with the woman — who does ALL the intense work of carrying and birthing a child — being labeled unclean at the end of the process. Anyone else? Yet, that’s what the entire, short, Chapter 12 is all about. As if to add insult to injury, the Text makes a distinction between giving birth to a boy and a girl. In giving birth to a girl, the yoledet (mother in this scenario), is unclean for an extra seven days.

We won’t dig into the distinction between birthing a boy or girl, but Rabbi Ami Silver gave it a try in the video: What’s Impure About Giving Birth?! and The Epilogue to that video.

Let’s try to answer a slightly different question — what does Tumah mean? Tumah is often translated as uncleanliness or ritual impurity.

To get there, we’ll follow the teachings of Rabbis at Aleph Beta.

To start the exploration, they make the assumption that Tumah and Tahara (often translated as cleanliness or ritual purity) are opposites. Not a big leap for me to agree with that assertion.

Here’s a thought experiment in an attempt to define Tumah and Tahara:

Cleanliness and uncleanliness don’t really capture it – if I roll around in dirt, I’m unclean… but I’m not [Tumah]. And if I take a shower, that doesn’t make me [Tahara].

[On the other hand,] what does it mean to be pure or impure? The English language also struggles with pinpointing the meaning of those terms. Dictionaries usually define them by negation – by saying what they’re not. Purity means, “Free of contamination,” and impurity, by definition, means “not pure.” So we know what they’re not… but we’re not any closer to understanding what Tumah and Tahara – ritual purity and impurity – are.

-Rabbis Immanuel Shalev and David Block, Understanding the Meaning of Tumah

Rabbis Immanuel Shalev and David Block use the following cases of Tumah to continue the point:

  • Someone who comes into contact with the carcass of a non-kosher animal (Leviticus 11)
  • the yoledet (i.e. the mother who just gave birth; Leviticus 12)
  • the metzora (i.e. the person afflicted with the skin disease; Leviticus 13,14)
  • the man who’s “seed of copulation goes out from him” (Leviticus 15:16)
  • a menstruating woman (Leviticus 15:19)
  • men and women who experience abnormal bodily discharge (Leviticus 15:2, 25)
  • Someone who comes in contact with a human corpse (Numbers 5:2)

It’s important to note, nothing above insinuates a negative connotation. In fact, childbirth is actually a positive (not negative) commandment. Which means God told His people to do it. So, how can something God commands His people to do then be labeled as unclean or impure? It can’t, it just doesn’t fit. Additionally, if God is Creator, then menstruation is a natural part of the design. How can someone operating by God’s design, outside their own control, then be labeled as unclean or impure? They can’t, it just doesn’t fit. Tumah must mean something else.

So, what is the lowest common denominator among the above cases? Is there a single, unifying thread that weaves them together? 


On the surface, it looks like two categories emerge: (1) contact with a dead person or animal and (2) different types of bodily discharge. However, on the surface, neither the yoledet or metzora share anything with these two categories or each other.

What if we re-labeled the categories that we did discover? What if those categories read: (1) Contact w/ Death and (2) Discharge of Life, instead?

After all, that’s really what each is. In Category #1 Tumah is transferred in the physical presence of death. In Category #2, Tumah exists when blood (i.e. the life-force) is leaving the body uncontrollably or when sperm and unfertilized eggs are leaving the body.

Is it possible that Category #1 & #2 are actually a single Category? This single category hypothesis is offered by the Rabbis at Aleph Beta. 

They come to the conclusion that Tumah is… “experiencing a brush with mortality, being reminded of just how fragile life is.”

Support for this comes by way of a statement the Jewish Sage’s make regarding the corpse in Numbers.

The Sages [call] one case the father of fathers of all Tumah – meaning, the highest and most potent form of Tumah. This language is used to describe Tumah contracted either through contact with, or being in the same room as, a corpse.

-Rabbis Immanuel Shalev and David Block, Understanding the Meaning of Tumah

Calling contact with death the grandfather of all Tumah suggests every other form of Tumah should be filtered through this idea.

It’s not just physical contact though. It’s being in the presence of death — confronting death.

What does death have to do with giving birth or having a skin disease?

Well, there’s only one documented case of this skin disease — tzara‘at — in all of Torah. Meaning, there’s only one case study of the metzora in Torah.

Interestingly, the short Chapter in Numbers describing this single case also relates the person afflicted to being dead, like a stillborn. 

But when the cloud was removed from above the tent, Miriam had tzara‘at, as white as snow. Aaron looked at Miriam, and she was as white as snow. Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, please don’t punish us for this sin we committed so foolishly. Please don’t let her be like a stillborn baby, with its body half eaten away when it comes out of its mother’s womb!”

-Numbers 12:10-12, emphasis added

Now, think about labor and delivery… mothers face brushes with death every time they bring new life into this world.   

It really does seem like Tumah is a confrontation with death. But for what purpose?

…to be continued next week.

Section Two (Connection to NT + haftarah):

Jesus, in answering John’s question, cites several things to be reported. One of which is the metzora being returned to a state of Tahara (Luke 7:22).

The Greek used to denote returning to Tahara is katharizo. In the Septuagint, more than one-third of its usage occurs in Chapter 12-15 in Leviticus. Additionally, the Greek in the Luke Text used to describe the person with skin disease is lepros, a specific form of the word used most by the author of Luke, more so than other NT authors. In the Septuagint, lepros shows up in Leviticus 13:44,45 and Leviticus 14:2,3 — despite its root, lepra, being used 33 times throughout Leviticus 13 and 14. It seems like the reference in the Septuagint acts to bridge the diagnosis Text of Leviticus 13 with the purification process of Leviticus 14.

To me, this suggests the author was intentional. Maybe the intentionality exists so that we won’t miss the details of the purification process — which we take a close look at next week.

Which makes me wonder… Are Tumah and Tahara, specifically as they relate to the metzora, our clue to understanding what Jesus wants John to know?

Section Three (missing the mark):

The language of someone being unclean can quickly and easily become weaponized. 

What if throughout history the rhetoric around these laws actually built the case for harm — more than the author of the Bible intended?

God makes known His intent…

In this way you will separate the people of Israel from their Tumah, so that they will not die in a state of Tumah for defiling my Tabernacle which is there with them.

-Leviticus 15:31

You see, God doesn’t want people to stay Tumah. It seems God is after people returning to a state of Tahara so that they can be in community with Him again.

After our conversation in Section One, I hope church leaders can acknowledge that Tumah is not a condemnation. That, Tumah is not sinning.

Tumah, regardless of how it comes to be, is a temporary state of being that is designed to awaken God’s people.

Maybe it’s time pastors embraced the new rhetoric of Tumah, because unclean and impure are untrue and improper.

Section Four (real-world applications):

What if we’ve gravely misunderstood the idea of Tumah and Tahara, and in doing so have ignored our wake up call to return home?

Or, worse yet, have kept people from returning home?

Next Week’s Readings: Leviticus 14:1-15:33; Luke 7:18-35

4 thoughts on “The Shuvah Project #29 — Defiled

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