As we meander our way through the book of Vayikra (Leviticus in English) we encounter another double parsha. Like the portions which precede it these portions continue to explore ideas of purity and the ways in which the community of Israel should behave.
Last week we grappled with the notion of impurity as a result of bodily functions. A particularly difficult area of Jewish law to reconcile (if one feels the need to do so) with the modern and progressive world. The question was left, quite unsatisfyingly, unanswered.
The question: How can a natural part of human existence cause one to become impure/unfit to remain in the community?
First we must explore what the natural aspects of human existence are. For this we turn to a podcast - Radiolab. In a recent episode the host recalls a time he shook hands with a US president, vowing not to wash his hand for some time in order to maintain the essence of the president. Many years later he asks the question: "how much of the President is actually left on my hand?" To answer this he delves into a field of science, microbial science. He discovers that every person is uniquely defined by a unique combination of bacteria which live on our bodies. This allows for this area of science to be used to solve crimes and find missing persons. Rather than defining someone by their DNA, this technology allows people to define others by the unique cocktail of things that aren't 'them'. It is a little bit paradoxical.
In the case of the handshake, how much of these bacteria is transferred to the other person and for how long? It turns out that the transfer is not always multi-directional as one might think, rather, one set of microbes may jump from one hand to the other in an attempt to conquer this new territory only to discover that the conditions of the new environment are unable to support them.
And so, at least on a biological level, our impurities actually allow us to maintain a biologically "true" version of ourself as we encounter others.
How do we become microbially unique?
Prior to our birth we are (mostly) us. That is to say, free of microbes. Upon coming into this world, the first few days and months of our lives are not only formative in an intellectual sense but are also defining moments for us biologically. This is where we are assaulted by mircobes as our bodies become home to many new organisms, usually the ones we come into closest contact with. So when a mother and father hold their baby close they actually share a part of their biological "non-identity" with the infant. These microbes (for the most part) do not change. They may enter into a stage of flux when two people encounter one another but results in the eventual return of an equilibrium. In this way we become defined by these microbes.
From birth, all people are defined by their micro impurities - pieces of them which aren't them.
And so we return our initial question. I would like to suggest that being "impure" is a fundamental and unavoidable part of being human as shown by our brief exploration of microbial science. In order to maintain our sense of impurity i.e. our identity, we must limit interactions when we are vulnerable from a biological point of view. In this way, all people can remain true to their biological identity. Otherwise, we may enter into a stage flux in which our body must resist new beings. Obviously there are times in which this would be the desired outcome. One need to look no further than the example we discussed regarding parents and their newborns.
And so we end this week by asking another question:
When is it appropriate to share a part of ourselves with another?
Note: In the process of thinking about these ideas I have encountered many answers all which remain unsatisfying in one way or another. I would love to hear your ideas on other answers to this question or issues you may have with this approach.
Link to podcast: https://www.wnyc.org/radio/#/ondemand/752399