“The Ultimate Value and Sanctity of Human Life in Judaism”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Metzorah, is often combined with last week’s parasha, parashat Tazria. Parashat Metzorah continues to deal with the skin disease tzaraat, that, according to tradition, one is afflicted with for speaking lashon hara, speaking evil against others. The parasha describes the ritual of purification of the person with tzaraat, and informs us how tzaraat may appear on the walls of a person’s home.

The final chapter of parashat Metzorah is concerned with the phenomenon of impurity that results from menstrual and seminal flows. Since the early chapters of parashat Metzorah deal with the ritual of purification of the person who has tzaraat, it follows logically that the rules regulating the person contaminated by bodily flows be included in this parasha as well.

I have often maintained that the bottom line of Judaism is the sanctity of human life. I believe that the ultimate purpose of every single mitzvah and ritual in Judaism can be traced to Judaism’s ultimate regard for the sanctity of human life. This regard is reflected in many of the rituals and practices of Judaism. For instance, upon waking in the morning, one immediately says Modeh Ani, washes one’s hands with water, the source of life, to thank G-d for restoring our souls. Since when we sleep we are in a state of unconsciousness, the closest contact a human being has with death, we need to reaffirm life. This value is also reflected in mundane practices that Judaism advocates, like tying one’s shoes properly. According to Jewish tradition, one should put on their right shoe first then their left shoe, tie the left shoe, and then go back to tie the right shoe. This is done in order to underscore the need to show sensitivity towards the limbs of our bodies. How much more sensitive must we be towards fellow human beings! We must not favor one person unfairly over another. Clearly, the bottom line of all of Judaism is the sanctity of human life.

Perhaps the most profound indication that Judaism values human life above all else comes from the series of perplexing laws that are found in our parasha, parashat Metzorah. These laws are not only perplexing, but at first blush seem to be quite primitive, and a real turn-off to anyone considering practicing Judaism. In chapter 15 of Leviticus, G-d admonishes Moses and Aharon to instruct the Jewish people and to tell all the men that anyone who has a discharge, specifically a seminal flow from his body, should be considered tamay (for lack of a better word we will translate this word as impure). In order to be cleansed from that impurity, the person who had the discharge must wash his clothes, and go to the mikvah at night. The more discharges a person experiences, the more impure he is, requiring additional cleansing rituals.

A woman too is subject to such laws. The Torah tells us that if a woman experiences bleeding at the regular time of her monthly period she is in a state of ritual impurity, niddah. Once the bleeding ceases she has to count seven days and go to the mikvah. The Torah also speaks of any other flow of blood, not at the time of the period, zavah, which renders her impure. At times she is impure for only a single day, and at times seven days. Today, because we do not know the difference between the menstrual blood and the non-menstrual blood, all women are required to keep a minimum of five days of menstrual flow, plus a seven day period of cleanliness before they can go to the mikvah.

As uncomfortable as we may be talking about these issues, these laws are among the most enlightened in human history and culture, and ultimately reflect Judaism’s uncompromised belief in the sanctity of human life. There is nothing more sanctified in Judaism than life — human life, and there is nothing more dreaded in Judaism than the termination of human life. Death consequently, is the ultimate defiler. In ancient times, whenever anyone came in contact with death they would be defiled for seven days, would have to be sprinkled on the third and seventh day with the water of the red heifer, and go to the mikvah on the night of the eighth to become purified.

Many of us in contemporary times have become inured to death. Especially with modern media and its ability to communicate to us about vast numbers of deaths and disasters, it becomes virtually impossible for us to mourn properly or at all. So we often choose to ignore death and instead turn to the sports pages, the fashion pages, or the business pages, to avoid the grief. Judaism is concerned that human beings not become indifferent to death, because once we become indifferent to death we become insensitive to life as well. And so Judaism required that any time anyone came in contact with death in any way they would need to reaffirm life. The ancients would reaffirm life by going to the mikvah, containing “living water,” the source of all life, after all we human beings are composed of 98 percent water. It’s like going back to the premordial creation, where there was only water in the world, in effect it’s a rebirth.

And so the Torah tells us that whenever we come in contact with potential life, semen, or an ovum that is not fertilized and is instead ejected from the body and dies, we need to go to the mikvah to reaffirm life. In ancient times men as well as women were required to go to the mikvah for this reaffirmation.

Today we are all in a state of perpetual ritual impurity, since we all come in contact with death. As we have no Beit HaMikdash, Holy Temple, and no waters of the red heifer, we are unable to rid ourselves of death’s contamination. The laws of mikvah and purification really don’t apply to us — with one exception: the requirement for all times that women go to mikvah after the conclusion of their menstrual period. The legal reason for the continuation of the regulations regarding women is because having relations with a woman who is a menstruant is a separate prohibition in the Torah, mentioned in chapters 18 and 20 in Leviticus.

Although no reason is given why that particular element of these laws should be practiced even in non-Temple times, it could be speculated that it is because these laws have a vital second function. Clearly the sexual drive of the human being is one of the most powerful forces. As we know, the sexual drive has the power to obfuscate other types of relationships, especially spiritual relationships. One who is obsessed with sexuality rarely has the ability to express love or spiritual emotion–the basic animalistic drive takes over. We often lose the ability to say to our loved ones, “I love you because of who you are, rather than because of what I can get off of you.” The Torah consequently mandates that during a period of each month, when the woman menstruates, sexual contact ceases. During that time, husband and wife reaffirm their love for each other, their spiritual love, aside from the sexual attraction. The laws that regulate this behavior are called the laws of Taharat Ha’mishapchah, Family Purity, and have had an enormous meritorious impact on Jewish family life.

These complex laws of emissions and purification, which seem so crude at first blush, are truly enlightened. I have often said that one need not believe in G-d in order to benefit from the brilliance of the Torah rituals, and these laws are the perfect example.

May you be blessed.