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Not About Sin

One of the things Christian commentators love to do when interpreting parables is bring ritual purity into it, and 99% of the time, they get it absolutely wrong. File it under the heading of "treating Judaism as the problem Jesus came to solve."

When discussing the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Blomberg, Shillington, Herzog, and others are all certain that the reason the Pharisee is standing apart from the tax collector is because he's worried about ritual impurity.

This is absurd. The tax collector is also in a state of ritual purity or he wouldn't be in the Temple.

We'll see it again with interpretations of the Good Samaritan parable—the kohen and the Levite must have failed to help the dying man by the side of the road because they were Worried About Ritual Impurity. This isn't as absurd on its face as it is in the Pharisee and tax collector parable, but it's belied by the parable's careful specification that both the kohen and the Levite are "going down" from Jerusalem to Jericho. We'll get into why that matters in the post about that parable. Pikuach nefesh, the Jewish legal principle which permits almost any rule in Judaism (with the exception of things like premeditated murder) to be broken in order to save a life, should have compelled them to help the man, since they wouldn't need to be ritually pure in the immediate future. The barrier to acting in the parable isn't Jewish law. 

Since ritual purity is going to come up again and again in discussing Christian interpretations of the parables, let's talk about what it is and isn't.

The Purity Problem

It's actually pretty easy to understand why both ritual purity and the Pharisees are such popular whipping boys for progressives, as both are associated in Christian minds with contempt or disgust or a sense of superiority toward other human beings. That association in itself, however, is deeply tied to antisemitic stereotypes of Jews as xenophobic. (I could throw the concept of Chosenness in there too, to keep on theme and form a trinity.)

There's also an unfortunate tendency among Christian interpreters to associate ritual impurity with sinfulness. While that tendency hasn't been entirely absent from Judaism, especially in the first century when Jews were trying out all kinds of crazy new ideas like asceticism and celibacy and Hellenism, it's not a dominant theme, and modern Christians seem way more obsessed with the idea of ritual purity than the Jews in their stories are. 

Trying to explain the concept of ritual purity and how it works in Judaism is probably enough for a blog series in itself, since I'd argue that understanding it is less something one gets from reading an essay on it and more something one comes to understand from the context of Jewish texts and thinkers—much as, when learning a language, one eventually starts to understand that a word doesn't quite match up with the one-world English equivalent given in the lexicon in the back of one's textbook. One begins to get a sense of the meaning from seeing how it is used, in myriad examples; so it is here.

That said, I'll try to tackle it here simply in hopes that Christian readers will see why it doesn't really belong in their discussion of the parables. To be clear, these are my attempts to articulate the sense of concepts that are nuanced and ambiguous. Other Jews will likely disagree with parts of these characterizations (as the saying goes, "Two Jews, three opinions").

Image by Linus Nylund

Waters of Change:
Ritual Purity in Contemporary Judaism

While most of this post is going to focus on the concept of ritual purity as it exists in the Torah and in Judaism before Christianity split off, since the ultimate point of this entire series is to try to educate Christians away from interpretations of the parables that ultimately end up reinforcing prejudice toward actual, living Jews, and ritual purity is something that still exists (in a limited form) in modern Judaism, let's talk about its role in today's practice.

Most of the rules around ritual purity found in the Torah applied to Temple worship. You had to be in a state of ritual purity (taharah) to enter the Temple. However, while most of those rules are irrelevant in the absence of a Temple, contemporary Jews still sometimes enter into a state of ritual purity (or enter objects into that state) today through immersion in a mikvah (also transliterated as mikveh), or ritual bath. (It's also present, to a limited extent, in hand-washing rituals.)

For liberal (non-Orthodox) Jews, who represent 90% of the American Jewish population, this practice is usually limited to preparing for weddings and converting to Judaism (Christians adapted the practice into baptism), but it can be used to mark any major life transition (emerging from mourning, recovering from an illness, reaching a particular age, becoming a rabbi, becoming a grandparent, etc.). There's increasing interest in mikvah immersion as part of therapy in healing trauma from sexual assault or abusive relationships.


While I'm a millennial who appreciates sex positivity and feels like we should all be way less uptight about bodies, especially female ones, I have to say that there is something I found very healing about the traditions around protecting the modesty of the person who is immersing. Instead of treating the body like something shameful, it really feels like it treats it as sacred.

Orthodox Jews (roughly 10% of the American Jewish population) immerse, depending on their particular tradition, after menstruation, before Shabbat services and holidays, after giving birth, and for any major life transition.

Like many cultures throughout the world, Judaism links water and birth, and immersing in the mikvah represents a symbolic rebirth and entering into a new chapter of one's life renewed and pure. (For converts, mikvah immersion especially represents symbolic rebirth: adoption into the Jewish family as children of Abraham and Sarah and naturalization into the Jewish nation.)

So while remaining in a state of ritual purity for any length of time is largely defunct in the absence of the Temple, the means of achieving it are still present in contemporary Judaism to mark transitions.

For more reading:


Now let's go back to talking about how it's referenced in the Torah and what it probably meant during the Second Temple period.

A Note on References

In most cases, when I cite the Bible, I draw my examples from the Torah (what Christians call the Pentateuch), so I'm taking a moment here to briefly discuss how the Jewish prioritization of the sections of the Tanakh (the Jewish bible) is different from the Christian one. 

Throughout this series, I try to use the term Old Testament when I'm talking about Christian views on the text, and Tanakh when I'm talking about Jewish ones. It's not quite accurate to say that they're the same: obviously, the greatest difference is that Christians consider the Old Testament to be only part of the whole Bible, while for Jews it's the entirety of the text. But the differences go beyond that. Christians consider translations just as sacred and authoritative as the original text, while for Jews, the sacred text is the Hebrew text (for us, translations are more like commentaries, authority-wise). Some Christian translations are based on the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the original Hebrew text. Christians also have books in their Old Testament, in their canon, that we don't have in the Tanakh. They put the books in a different order.

But just as crucial as the language or the order is the importance we place on different books. For Christians, at least as I understand it, all of the Old Testament is equally sacred, equally authoritative, at least theoretically. In practice, of course, it looks a bit different. The lectionaries I've looked at are weighted heavily toward the Psalms and various prophets, especially Isaiah, and, obviously, excerpts from the NT. 

For Jews, the Torah is of supreme importance, and everything else is basically commentary. We read selections from other books (called haftorah), but we read the entirety of the Torah in a yearly cycle, over and over again. The most sacred object in our communities is a Torah scroll. The rest of the books in the Tanakh are important, certainly, but essentially all of Jewish religious writing, whether it's the prophets or the Mishnah or the Talmud or midrash or Kabbalah or medieval rabbinic writings or contemporary ones, is commentary on the Torah. 

So when I'm talking about concepts in Jewish thought like holiness or ritual purity, I draw my examples from the Torah.

Ritual Impurity
Less Like Sin, More Like Germs

So to understand ritual purity (taharah) and impurity (tumah), and what it means to be ritually pure (tahor) or impure (tameh), you need to understand that there are multiple intersecting binary states for people and things in the Torah: 

pure vs. impure

righteous / good / moral vs. unrighteous / evil / immoral

holy / sacred vs. not holy
("unholy" has an association with evil in English, so I'm not going to use it here)


These things are sometimes related, but they're not synonymous. We'll talk about purity last, since it's the primary focus here. 

Divine Radiation

Holiness, in the Torah, usually has to do with direct contact with the divine. God is holy, and the tools that human beings use to interact directly with God are holy. There are two primary componenets to this.


The first is the sense of being set apart. Holy objects are not everyday objects, they can't be used for everyday things, and they need to be treated differently. (Similarly, to be holy, people need to be set apart in some sense.)

וְֽאִם־יִוָּתֵ֞ר מִבְּשַׂ֧ר הַמִּלֻּאִ֛ים וּמִן־הַלֶּ֖חֶם עַד־הַבֹּ֑קֶר וְשָׂרַפְתָּ֤ אֶת־הַנּוֹתָר֙ בָּאֵ֔שׁ לֹ֥א יֵאָכֵ֖ל כִּי־קֹ֥דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃

And if any of the flesh of ordination, or any of the bread, is left until morning, you shall put what is left to the fire; it shall not be eaten, for it is holy. (Exodus 29:34)

וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ אֹתָהּ֙ קְטֹ֔רֶת רֹ֖קַח מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה רוֹקֵ֑חַ מְמֻלָּ֖ח טָה֥וֹר קֹֽדֶשׁ׃

Make them into incense, a compound expertly blended, refined, pure, sacred.

וְשָֽׁחַקְתָּ֣ מִמֶּנָּה֮ הָדֵק֒ וְנָתַתָּ֨ה מִמֶּ֜נָּה לִפְנֵ֤י הָעֵדֻת֙ בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד אֲשֶׁ֛ר אִוָּעֵ֥ד לְךָ֖ שָׁ֑מָּה קֹ֥דֶשׁ קָֽדָשִׁ֖ים תִּהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶֽם׃

Beat some of it into powder, and put some before the Pact in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you; it shall be most holy to you.

וְהַקְּטֹ֙רֶת֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תַּעֲשֶׂ֔ה בְּמַ֨תְכֻּנְתָּ֔הּ לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּ לָכֶ֑ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ תִּהְיֶ֥ה לְךָ֖ לַיהוָֽה׃

But when you make this incense, you must not make any in the same proportions for yourselves; it shall be held by you sacred to the LORD. (Exodus 30:35-37)

וְאָכְל֤וּ אֹתָם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר כֻּפַּ֣ר בָּהֶ֔ם לְמַלֵּ֥א אֶת־יָדָ֖ם לְקַדֵּ֣שׁ אֹתָ֑ם וְזָ֥ר לֹא־יֹאכַ֖ל כִּי־קֹ֥דֶשׁ הֵֽם׃

These things shall be eaten only by those for whom expiation was made with them when they were ordained and consecrated; they may not be eaten by a layman, for they are holy. (Exodus 29:33)

אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל תְּדַבֵּ֣ר לֵאמֹ֑ר שֶׁ֠מֶן מִשְׁחַת־קֹ֨דֶשׁ יִהְיֶ֥ה זֶ֛ה לִ֖י לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶֽם׃

And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: This shall be a holy anointing oil unto Me throughout your generations.

עַל־בְּשַׂ֤ר אָדָם֙ לֹ֣א יִיסָ֔ךְ וּבְמַ֨תְכֻּנְתּ֔וֹ לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּ כָּמֹ֑הוּ קֹ֣דֶשׁ ה֔וּא קֹ֖דֶשׁ יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶֽם׃

Upon the flesh of man shall it not be poured, neither shall ye make any like it, according to the composition thereof; it is holy, and it shall be holy unto you. (Exodus 30:31-32)


You get the idea.

Holy things aren't supposed to be used (or imitated) for mundane purposes—we can make incense for other uses, but it can't be the same recipe as the holy incense. We can make anointing oil, but it can't be the same as the holy oil. If the food made to eat in a holy context doesn't get eaten within a certain window of time, it can't be eaten and has to be burned. (Also, I didn't pay a lot of attention to which translations these quotes were pulled from, but what's translated as holysacred, and consecrated is the same word/root in Hebrew.) These quotes are all about things, but the same separation applies to people and time.


The other key thing about holiness is that it's contagious.

וּמָשַׁחְתָּ֥ ב֖וֹ אֶת־אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וְאֵ֖ת אֲר֥וֹן הָעֵדֻֽת׃

With it anoint the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Pact,

וְאֶת־הַשֻּׁלְחָן֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־כֵּלָ֔יו וְאֶת־הַמְּנֹרָ֖ה וְאֶת־כֵּלֶ֑יהָ וְאֵ֖ת מִזְבַּ֥ח הַקְּטֹֽרֶת׃

the table and all its utensils, the lampstand and all its fittings, the altar of incense,

וְאֶת־מִזְבַּ֥ח הָעֹלָ֖ה וְאֶת־כָּל־כֵּלָ֑יו וְאֶת־הַכִּיֹּ֖ר וְאֶת־כַּנּֽוֹ׃

the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the laver and its stand.

וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֣ אֹתָ֔ם וְהָי֖וּ קֹ֣דֶשׁ קָֽדָשִׁ֑ים כָּל־הַנֹּגֵ֥עַ בָּהֶ֖ם יִקְדָּֽשׁ׃

Thus you shall consecrate them so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them shall be consecrated. (Exodus 30:26-29)

שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֗ים תְּכַפֵּר֙ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֖ אֹת֑וֹ וְהָיָ֤ה הַמִּזְבֵּ֙חַ֙ קֹ֣דֶשׁ קָֽדָשִׁ֔ים כָּל־הַנֹּגֵ֥עַ בַּמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ יִקְדָּֽשׁ׃

Seven days you shall perform purification for the altar to consecrate it, and the altar shall become most holy; whatever touches the altar shall become consecrated. (Exodus 29:37)


So the divine is holy, and whatever is going to come into direct contact with the divine either has to be holy or becomes holy from that contact. 

Holiness is also potentially dangerous. The long sections of Exodus that describe the elaborate clothing the High Priest has to wear to enter the inner sanctuary and encounter God seem, as my rabbi pointed out, pretty similar to the precise instructions one would have for constructing a space suit. (The Torah is blunt on this: Aaron must be dressed this way, and behave in a certain way, so he doesn't die from the encounter.) Holiness is, in many ways, similar to radiation. It can be spread by contact and too much direct exposure can be deadly (as in the case of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu). 

We tend to assume that holiness is good, because God is good, but the text itself doesn't usually overtly connect the two. Holiness is something that the text is primarily interested in managing, in keeping people safe around it. 

Human Ethics

Righteousness/goodness/morality, on the other hand, is primarily associated with human behavior toward other humans. 

We most often see it in formulaic language in which it is paired, as an opposite, with wickedness.

חָלִ֨לָה לְּךָ֜ מֵעֲשֹׂ֣ת ׀ כַּדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה לְהָמִ֤ית צַדִּיק֙ עִם־רָשָׁ֔ע וְהָיָ֥ה כַצַּדִּ֖יק כָּרָשָׁ֑ע חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט׃

That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked, that so the righteous should be as the wicked; that be far from Thee; shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?’ (Genesis 18:25)

וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח פַּרְעֹ֗ה וַיִּקְרָא֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֣ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֔ן וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֖ם חָטָ֣אתִי הַפָּ֑עַם יְהוָה֙ הַצַּדִּ֔יק וַאֲנִ֥י וְעַמִּ֖י הָרְשָׁעִֽים׃

And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them: ‘I have sinned this time; the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. (Exodus 9:27)

(The word/root translated as "righteous" is the same as "justice.") So, righteousness is the opposite of wickedness, but what is it? Well, while righteousness is something God is described as wanting and rewarding, when the Torah gives examples, they almost all have to do with just and compassionate treatment of other people, not with divinity.

וְשֹׁ֖חַד לֹ֣א תִקָּ֑ח כִּ֤י הַשֹּׁ֙חַד֙ יְעַוֵּ֣ר פִּקְחִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽים׃

And thou shalt take no gift; for a gift blindeth them that have sight, and perverteth the words of the righteous. (Exodus 23:8)

וּמִי֙ גּ֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל אֲשֶׁר־ל֛וֹ חֻקִּ֥ים וּמִשְׁפָּטִ֖ים צַדִּיקִ֑ם כְּכֹל֙ הַתּוֹרָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם׃

And what great nation is there, that hath statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:8)

When the Torah actually gives examples of what it means to be righteous, they have legal implications—they're overwhelmingly about ensuring that the legal system remains fair and impartial and that people are treated justly.

That's not to say there's no connection between righteousness and holiness—while the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26) mostly covers ritual practices, it does command the Israelites to be holy immediately before specifying a number of ethical commandments—but these commandments are also supposed to set Israel apart from the surrounding nations, so it's not necessarily clear that what makes them holy is ethical behavior so much as ethical behavior being a subset of the things that make them different, and thus holy (set apart).

So if holiness is the state of the divine and things that come in contact with the divine (almost a sort of divine radiation), and things, people, or time set apart for contact with the divine, and righteousness is just and correct behavior between people, what's purity?

Temporary Stability in a Lifetime of Change

Purity is the state in which one must be in to safely come in contact with the divine. It's primarily associated with being able to offer sacrifices in the Temple.

וְגַ֧ם הַכֹּהֲנִ֛ים הַנִּגָּשִׁ֥ים אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה יִתְקַדָּ֑שׁוּ פֶּן־יִפְרֹ֥ץ בָּהֶ֖ם יְהוָֽה׃

The priests also, who come near the LORD, must stay pure, lest the LORD break out against them.” (Exodus 19:22)

אוֹ־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִגַּ֔ע בְּכָל־שֶׁ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִטְמָא־ל֑וֹ א֤וֹ בְאָדָם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִטְמָא־ל֔וֹ לְכֹ֖ל טֻמְאָתֽוֹ׃

or if a man touches any swarming thing by which he is made unclean or any human being by whom he is made unclean—whatever his uncleanness—

נֶ֚פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּגַּע־בּ֔וֹ וְטָמְאָ֖ה עַד־הָעָ֑רֶב וְלֹ֤א יֹאכַל֙ מִן־הַקֳּדָשִׁ֔ים כִּ֛י אִם־רָחַ֥ץ בְּשָׂר֖וֹ בַּמָּֽיִם׃

the person who touches such shall be unclean until evening and shall not eat of the sacred donations unless he has washed his body in water.

וּבָ֥א הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וְטָהֵ֑ר וְאַחַר֙ יֹאכַ֣ל מִן־הַקֳּדָשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י לַחְמ֖וֹ הֽוּא׃

As soon as the sun sets, he shall be clean; and afterward he may eat of the sacred donations, for they are his food. (Leviticus 22:5-7)


(The Hebrew word/root translated as pure is the same as the word translated as clean.) 

There are a ton of examples of things, primarily in Leviticus, that can make one tameh, ritually impure. Rashes, illness, childbirth, ejaculation, death, touching dead things, touching sick people, etc. (Houses can also become impure if they have certain types of mold.)

It's important to understand that purity is a temporary state. There's nothing morally wrong with being impure—in fact, even when there was a Temple, most Jews were in states of ritual impurity most of the time. That doesn't mean they were bad people. It means they were living their lives. Kohanim (priests) and Levites were required to be ritually pure more often, but that's because it was their job to manage the whole sacrificial system. 

To use a modern analogy, a surgeon has to remain in a state of extreme cleanliness far more of the time than the rest of us, because her job requires it. That doesn't mean that the rest of us are somehow worse people than the surgeon—living your life brings you in contact with bacteria, and most of the time, that's fine. It's just that if you're going to cut people open and stick your hands inside them, staying as bacteria-free as possible while doing that is pretty crucial.

If I had to try to simplify the concept of what taharah and tumah actually are, I'd say that tumah, ritual impurity, has to do with transitional states. There's a sense, in the Torah, that birth (and by extension, pregnancy and ejaculation) and death (and by extension, sickness and menstruation) partake in some way of otherworldliness, of instability. There's nothing wrong or evil about that—after all, it's a commandment to reproduce, and the birth of a baby is a good thing; it's also a commandment to tend to the dead—but they are areas that have to be treated with caution.

And something about them, perhaps that very instability, makes them unsafe states in which to come in contact with holiness, with that divine radiation. You don't cross those streams.


A state of purity is unsustainable, and that's by design. It's essentially a frozen moment, a state in which ordinary life stops and nothing changes so that one can focus on facing the absolute.

A function of using ritual impurity to bar people from Temple worship is, in part, to set apart people who've just gone through major life transitions (having a baby, losing a loved one) from (at the time) the normal rhythm of participation in ritual activities. If you're sick, or if you've just had a baby, or if you've just lost a loved one, you should take time away from public life and focus inward, on yourself and your family.

That doesn't mean there's something unholy about impurity. Strangely, as I mentioned above, touching a Torah scroll—the most sacred object in Judaism—makes your hands impure (see a fascinating debate about what that means here). Indeed, the primary sources of impurity, birth/reproduction and death, are in some ways associated with the divine. God breathes life into humans, after all, and the way to give the part of one's flock that is owed to God is to sacrifice it—that is, to kill it. (It's also irrelevant to "holiness" when it's used in reference to people—Israel is supposed to be a holy nation, but its members can't be ritually pure all the time.)

There's a somewhat radical passage from the Mishnah (compendium of early debates about Jewish law) that talks about what is and isn't impure.

אוֹמְרִים צְדוֹקִים, קוֹבְלִין אָנוּ עֲלֵיכֶם, פְּרוּשִׁים, שֶׁאַתֶּם אוֹמְרִים, כִּתְבֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ מְטַמְּאִין אֶת הַיָּדַיִם, וְסִפְרֵי הוֹמֵרִיס אֵינוֹ מְטַמֵּא אֶת הַיָּדַיִם. אָמַר רַבָּן יוֹחָנָן בֶּן זַכַּאי, וְכִי אֵין לָנוּ עַל הַפְּרוּשִׁים אֶלָּא זוֹ בִלְבָד. הֲרֵי הֵם אוֹמְרִים, עַצְמוֹת חֲמוֹר טְהוֹרִים וְעַצְמוֹת יוֹחָנָן כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל טְמֵאִים. אָמְרוּ לוֹ, לְפִי חִבָּתָן הִיא טֻמְאָתָן, שֶׁלֹּא יַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם עַצְמוֹת אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ תַּרְוָדוֹת. אָמַר לָהֶם, אַף כִּתְבֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ לְפִי חִבָּתָן הִיא טֻמְאָתָן, וְסִפְרֵי הוֹמֵרִיס, שֶׁאֵינָן חֲבִיבִין, אֵינָן מְטַמְּאִין אֶת הַיָּדָיִם:

The Sadducees say: we complain against you, Pharisees, because you say that the Holy Scriptures defile the hands, but the books of Homer do not defile the hands. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said: Have we nothing against the Pharisees but this? Behold they say that the bones of a donkey are clean, yet the bones of Yohanan the high priest are unclean. They said to him: according to the affection for them, so is their impurity, so that nobody should make spoons out of the bones of his father or mother. He said to them: so also are the Holy Scriptures according to the affection for them, so is their uncleanness. The books of Homer which are not precious do not defile the hands. (Mishnah Yadayim 4:6

The Sadducees are arguing with the Pharisees because they think it's outrageous that touching a Torah scroll makes one's hands unclean, but touching Homer's work doesn't. Rabbi Yochanan eventually agrees with the Pharisees, who tell him, astonishingly, that the more beloved and precious (and, possibly, holy) something is, the more ritually impure it is.

So ritual impurity isn't necessarily the opposite of holiness—they may actually be related. But it's something that's not safe to combine with interaction with the divine, perhaps because it's potentially distracting. 

And to go back to the discussion of modern Jewish uses of the mikvah (the primary method for becoming ritually pure), what has survived in practice is a marker of transitional states, which aligns with the idea that ritual impurity is associated with transitions.

To complicate matters, anthropologists have been trying to define Jewish conceptions of purity and impurity for a long time, and I'm not sure we're any closer.

  • Baruch Levine argued in In the Presence of the Land: Aspects of Ritual in Ancient Israel (1974) that the ancient view of impurity was as a state that opened one up to malign influences.

  • Robertson Smith (1956) and Yehezekel Kaufmann (1938) argued that ritual impurity was a state that rendered one unfit to deal with the divine.

  • Mary Douglas first argued (1966) that rules around purity, especially the rules around kashrut (which foods are kosher) were about maintaining clear categories and boundaries, then changed her mind in 2002 and argued that impure or unclean animals are actually those which are not to be harmed. She believed impurity was both contextual (what might be pure in one context could be impure in others) and associated more closely with the idea of "dirt" than the idea of moral failure.

  • Jacob Neusner (1932-2016) did a careful classification of concepts of purity and impurity and their changes over time without really providing new explanations for those classifications.

  • Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) argued that purity was a "clear" state in which one was capable of receiving divine transmission, while impurity was a "blocked" state

  • Maimonides (1135-1204) argued that the rules were simply arbitrary and beyond human understanding.

Moral Purity
An Additional Wrinkle

Some of the confusion in Christian interpretations may stem from the fact that the same word, tameh, is used for someone who has committed various moral/ethical transgressions, such as idolatry, murder, or sexual improprieties. 

I would argue, however, that while the same word may be used, they're two different statuses. (Biblical Hebrew only has a lexicon of about 8000 words (not counting personal names). In contrast, modern English has about 120,000 words in everyday use, and over a million if one includes technical jargon, obsolete words, etc. The result of Biblical Hebrew's relatively tiny store of words is that most of its words have multiple meanings.)

For one thing, unlike ritual impurity, moral impurity doesn't seem to be contagious. You don't become ritually impure from touching someone who's committed an act that makes them morally impure, assuming they're otherwise ritually pure (e.g. the tax collector in the Temple). Furthermore, while there are specific instructions for returning oneself to a state of purity when one has become ritually impure, there are no instructions for removing that impurity. 

So I'd argue that the use of "impure" in terms of morality is essentially a metaphor or analogy, much as we might speak in contemporary English of immoral behavior creating a "stain" on someone's soul, whereas the use of "impure" in terms of ritual impurity is far more literal. 

So What Is "Purity"?

Returning to the original point, tameh and taharah aren't about morality. Being tameh isn't evil or a failure—in fact, it's something God literally commands people to be at times. It's just a state in which one can't enter the Temple. No one—Jew or gentile—is inherently ritually impure. It's true that Jews who needed to be in a state of ritual purity avoided contact with gentiles, but that doesn't mean they saw gentiles as inherently impure or inferior. A surgeon who's just washed up to perform surgery declining to shake hands with you isn't about seeing you as inferior. You have no reason to be in a similar state of hyper-sanitation.

There aren't good words in English for tameh and taharah. They don't really have the sense of "pure" or "clean"—those are just the closest translators could come. When Christians bring them into parable interpretation, they often seem to want to treat impurity as if it's about being corrupt or or a moral failure.

If you want to go down a rabbit hole about how first-century Jews viewed ritual purity, I recommend Yair Furstenberg.

In terms of what Jesus, if he existed, would have thought about ritual purity, it's hard to say, since views between different Jewish sects and schools of thought during the Second Temple period varied so widely. That said, I think it's notable that he spends a lot of his time in the gospels restoring people to states of ritual purity: he dries up the hemorrhaging woman, he raises the dead, he heals lepers. (He and his followers also spend a considerable amount of time praying and teaching in the Temple, for which they would have had to be ritually pure.)

So I don't think that descriptions of his attitude as being dismissive or contemptuous of purity tell the whole story.

In any case, if you've gotten anything out of this, I hope it's a sense of how complex, nuanced, and ambiguous this topic is and why it doesn't really belong in attempts to explain the behavior of characters in the parables.

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