Remember Ivory Soap, claiming to be 99 44/100% pure? That soap slogan began in 1882, at a time when Americans expected women to be pure. Purity tests remain part of our culture. However, the application of purity tests has corrupted and concretized the concept of purity into classifications of good and evil, an approach damaging to society and religion.
Purity tests of the late 19th century focused on women’s virginity. Women’s sexuality was subject to harsh judgment. Virginity until marriage was expected. That purity test has harmed women ever since.
The temperance movement emerged, equating the consumption of alcohol with impurity. From 1919 to 1933, the United States banned the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. Instead of reforming society, banning alcohol caused an increase in lawless behaviors. These examples of striving for purity demonstrate the dangers of equating purity with goodness.
In 15th Century Spain, purity of blood was an obsessive concern. During the inquisition, Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism or be expelled or be put to death. Fanatical Catholic leaders continued to have hatred for these new Christians because of their belief in the unfaithfulness of the “deicide Jews” (God-killing Jews). It was believed that this unfaithfulness persisted and was transmitted, by blood, to their descendants, regardless of the sincerity of their conversion to the Christian faith. Consequently, Old Christians “of pure blood” considered New Christians impure and therefore morally inadequate to be members of their communities. Author Jerome Friedman explains that medieval anti-Judaism became modern anti-Semitism through these concepts of purity.
Purity tests in our times abound in politics. Activists on the extremes of the political spectrum demand adherence to ideologies or philosophies. Absent their strict devotion, leaders are subject to alienation and denigration. Even more dangerous is the cult of personality that demands 100% faithfulness to a given leader. The application of purity principles has stratified and calcified political positions. The ability to compromise has given way to the opportunity to demonize.
Purity tests have stratified discussions about Israel in the Jewish community. Advocacy for Israel has given way to the condemnation of those who disagree with you about Israel’s policies. The discourse about the Holy Land has become most ungodly.
In this week’s Parshat Metzorah, purity principles are applied to houses, to women after childbirth, and to men after seminal emissions. In none of these instances are people making choices to be impure. The dichotomy between purity and impurity is part of the rhythm of living. The Torah’s purpose is not to vilify the impure but to lift us up to holiness. God asks that the Israelites be put on guard against impurity, not suffer because of it.
Impurity transfers from person to product, whether it is the sheets of a bed or a tent we enter. The quality of being impure is both tangible and intangible. The task of shedding impurity engages the mind in the duty to seek holiness. Purity and impurity are not opposites. They are different aspects of holiness.
More recently in Jewish history, there is a movement to reclaim purity as a spiritual practice. Mayyim Hayyim was founded in the Boston area over twenty years ago to elevate the ancient practice of mikveh. Inspired by author Anita Diamant, Mayyim Hayyim seeks to update the ritual of immersion by creating a very appealing physical structure and attending to innovation in its spiritual approach. Dignity, modesty, and inclusiveness are paramount to Mayyim Hayyim. This one mikveh has become a “living waters” movement around the globe to reclaim the concept of purity as a striving for holiness rather than as a measure of goodness.
Immersion in the mikveh is not only for women. As noted in Parshat Metzorah, men need to cleanse themselves in ways that purify the soul, with mikveh being one such modality.
Jewish life should also be a striving for purity of intentions. Our tradition demands that we care for the stranger, help the widow and orphan, and follow paths of peace. Nowhere are we directed to opine on the purity of others, whether it is their sexual or political proclivities. The meaningfulness of our lives should not be about testing others. Instead, we should be challenging ourselves. As history demonstrates, purity tests are harmful to individuals and to society. Similarly, our approach to purity is an essential element in the future health of Judaism.
Rabbi Evan Krame