Catherine has kindly granted permission to publish her fascinating and poignant d’var from this past shabbos. Here it is:

Tazria/Metzora – April 28, 2012
Catherine Madsen

Both of these parshiyot deal with the condition of tamei, ritual impurity, a state which is incurred as a result of particular illnesses, contact with the dead, and bodily emissions of a reproductive nature, including childbirth. The modern sensibility tends to be disturbed by the idea that natural experiences are impure; perhaps that objection is traceable to Rousseau, perhaps to our experience of invented compounds that turn out to be pollutants, or perhaps it’s just that we have easy access to running water. At any rate we resent any suggestion that the body isn’t clean. But tamei isn’t quite about dirt or contagion; it’s about boundaries and seclusion, keeping certain experiences separated. In Etz Hayim on p. 649, a prefatory note to the parsha suggests that tamei is one half of a two-tiered definition of holiness, an individual one and a collective one:

“We might postulate that there are two types of holiness in life, two ways of encountering the divine. There is a natural holiness found in the miracles of pregnancy, birth, and recovery from illness. And there is a stipulated holiness—the arbitrary designation of certain times, places, and activities as sacred. One meets God in the experiences of birth and death, sickness and health. But they are not everyday occurrences. The person who yearns for contact with God on a regular basis must rely on sanctuaries, worship services, and prescribed rituals, all of which are holy only because we have chosen to designate them as holy….A woman who had just given birth might feel the presence of God so strongly in that experience that she would feel no need to go to the sanctuary to find God.”

Etz Hayim is trying here to rehabilitate the state of ritual impurity as a parallel, but private, form of holiness. Perhaps as a consequence, their formulation is a bit decorous and disembodied: it doesn’t evoke the woman who’s just given birth, it evokes the woman talking about giving birth well after the fact in a Torah discussion.

But we might imagine tamei a bit differently. An experience that makes us ritually impure is, as it were, a direct experience of God which temporarily unfits the individual for contact with communal ritual. It throws us back upon our individuality: it renders us impure because it’s disorderly, messy, preoccupying. The woman who’s just given birth has been taken over by necessity: the exigencies of labor and the obligation to keep the baby alive. The person who has touched a dead body has come face to face with the final necessity, a sober confrontation that takes recovery time. The sick person has faced the uncertainties of when and whether the illness will end, and the full-time job of attempting a cure. The person with the bodily emission may be absorbed in shame or joy or a sense of lost control, or in the case of menstruation a lot of mess and perhaps some physical debility. Seclusion during and after such times allows for a kind of private woundedness, a period of convalescence from vulnerable states. Even Moses wears a veil after talking with God. Maybe the motto of such occasions is “I vant to be alone.”

Is seclusion also necessary because communal ritual will seem less convincing after an intense experience? Because after such an experience you’ll look at the familiar rituals with an alienated eye and think “What is all this mumbo-jumbo?” Because the world of people who are trying to be holy according to stipulated forms will be an assault on your intimate knowledge? Because your intimate knowledge will be an assault on them?

There is a mountain—here we would call it a mountain; it’s 700 feet higher from its valley than Norwottuck is from ours, but in a place whose topographical landmarks range from 12,000 to 20,000 feet it is not strictly speaking mountainous. Still it dominates the western skyline of Fairbanks; it draws the eye from any unobstructed view. It’s a shapely mass, with great ripples of ridge and valley and a rough symmetry; it gives the sense of being a guardian, a boundary, a protector. In the spring and fall the sun sets behind it. Its slopes are covered with dark spruce, and patches of aspen and birch; on a little bald spot at the summit there are several cell phone towers and a radio tower. When I lived in Fairbanks in the early ’60s there was an observatory and a ski lodge up there, so sometimes a light shone on the summit. Beyond it only two roads go farther west, and only for a hundred miles or so; it is only marginally inaccurate to say “Beyond it the roadless wilderness.”

And how is that to matter to anyone who hasn’t seen it—who hasn’t lived with it as the snow fell and as the snow melted, as the leaves came out and as the leaves turned yellow? How is it to mean anything at all to people who’ve never been there? My friends can be happy for me that I’ve seen it again, but something else makes each of them happy; some other landscape, or something else altogether, gives each of them the longing this mountain has given me. William Butler Yeats wrote of the power and the incommunicable privacy of such experiences of longing in the poem “Towards Break of Day”:

Was it the double of my dream
The woman that by me lay
Dreamed, or did we halve a dream
Under the first cold gleam of day?

I thought: ‘There is a waterfall
Upon Ben Bulben side
That all my childhood counted dear;
Were I to travel far and wide
I could not find a thing so dear.’
My memories had magnified
So many times childish delight.

I would have touched it like a child
But knew my finger could but have touched
Cold stone and water. I grew wild,
Even accusing Heaven because
It had set down among its laws:
Nothing that we love overmuch
Is ponderable to our touch.

I dreamed towards break of day,
The cold blown spray in my nostril.
But she that beside me lay
Had watched in bitterer sleep
The marvellous stag of Arthur,
That lofty white stag, leap
From mountain steep to steep.

The couple are divided by their dreams of the unattainable: Yeats can recover nothing of his childhood experience but the waterfall’s indifferent physical elements, and the woman who sleeps beside him sees the white stag escaping beyond reach. In Arthurian legend, the white stag was so compelling that the king forgot his sweetheart; Yeats alludes here circumspectly to his wife’s knowledge that the unattainable Maud Gonne, whom he had loved for decades, would always be first in his imagination.  Both dreams, and both experiences, remain profoundly inward, isolating.


Why, in the levitical scheme of things, are the “stipulated forms” of collective ritual considered (of all things) purer than the direct individual experience? Why is purity located not in the state of nature but in the contrivances of collective religious practice?  Perhaps because communal ritual draws people together across the gaps and barriers of these isolating lone experiences—which are not mutually intelligible, cannot be told, cannot be healed. Communal ritual abstracts the strength of these experiences, drawing it from all its separate contexts and fusing it into shared myth and practice. This fusion costs something: your experiences are still deeply private and are now also eclipsed, supplanted by the shared myth and not allowed to rule or define your life. You’re prevented, or at least discouraged, from paying your experiences what you owe them. I remember being told, during my abortive attempt to be Christian, that my profound experiences couldn’t lead me to God, only Jesus could lead me to God. Judaism too has its own blunt dismissals of private experience and its own ruling obsessions with identity and boundaries. Yet you also gain something, because now you have people to sing with.

Perhaps it isn’t so different from being a small aboriginal people that depends on the forest or the tundra or the polar ice to yield it a living: long solitary hours on the hunt, which is mostly waiting for something huntable to appear; hunger and privation, with their accompanying bodily weakness and visionary outbreaks; the mortal necessity of good temper, kindness and cooperation. The singing and dancing of the small community doesn’t eclipse the private experiences of the individuals, it embraces and relieves them.

People very commonly, these days, say things like “I find God in nature, so I don’t need to go to synagogue.” They put themselves, as it were, in a permanent state of tamei, looking with a perpetually alienated eye at the quaint practices and pathetic dependencies of people who “need” to worship together. I’m impatient with this; of course they find God in nature, do they think people who go to synagogue don’t find God in nature? M’lo khol ha-aretz k’vodo, the whole earth is full of his glory. But in another sense they’re accurately identifying a critical difference between the private and the public. I don’t think Etz Hayim is quite right that communal ritual is for those who “yearn for contact with God on a regular basis”; you could get that by taking more walks in the woods. You can’t expect to find God in synagogue in that way, and maybe finding God in synagogue isn’t quite what communal ritual is for. You might find God in nature and be so disconsolate at never finding such an experience among people that you have to patch together a public religious experience that at least refers obliquely to the private one. A constructed holiness that gestures toward the revealed one.
You might also discover that what you love IS ponderable: it’s real, all you have to do is buy a ticket and you can go there and call the hill by its name to people who know it. There are real estate agents and utility companies and car dealers and used furniture stores and people to pump out your septic tank. The competencies generated by communal ritual are enough to detach you from desolation and hopeless longing; they give you back your life and the length of your days. If communal ritual puts your profound experiences brutally into perspective, it also gives you sane ways to recover them: it doesn’t allow you to marinate yourself in them, like Miss Havisham feeding her grief in a decaying mansion. In that sense the individual experience is impure, not because it’s intense and private but because after a while it festers. The communal experience is pure in the sense that it’s cooperative, it’s a form of mutual aid, a medium of exchange. If psychotherapy is a talking cure, maybe there’s such a thing as a praying cure, that heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.