“The Ultimate Value and Sanctity of Human Life in Judaism”
(Revised and updated from Metzorah 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Metzorah, continues the Torah’s focus on the “intriguing” skin disease צָרַעַתtzaraat, discussed in last week’s parasha, Tazria. According to tradition, tzaraat, is an affliction that results from speaking לְשׁוֹן הָרָעLashon Hara, speaking evil against others (see Tazria 5763-2003). Parashat Metzorah, also describes the ritual purification necessary for a person who has recovered from tzaraat, and informs us how tzaraat, besides appearing on one’s body and clothes, may also appear on the walls of a person’s home.

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

It is often maintained, that the bottom line of all of Judaism is the sanctity of human life, and that the ultimate purpose of every single mitzvah and ritual in Judaism can probably be traced to Judaism’s high regard for the ultimate sanctity of human life.

This supreme regard for human life is reflected in many of the rituals and practices of Judaism. For instance, upon waking in the morning, one immediately recites מוֹדֶה אֲנִיModeh Ani, thanking G-d for restoring one’s soul, followed by vigorously washing one’s hands with water–the ultimate source of all life. Since sleep itself is a state of unconsciousness and the closest contact that a living human being has with death, the need to reaffirm life is vital.

Judaism’s value for human life is also reflected in the mundane practices that are often incorporated in daily life, such as tying one’s shoes “properly.” According to Jewish custom, one should put on their right shoe first, followed by their left shoe, tie the left shoe, and then return to tie the right shoe. This is done in order to underscore the need to show sensitivity toward the limbs of one’s body. How much more sensitive must one be toward fellow human beings by not showing undue favoritism to one person 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 a series of intriguing laws that are found in parashat Metzorah. These laws are not only challenging, but, at first blush, appear to be primitive and offsetting. In Leviticus 15:1-18, G-d admonishes Moses and Aaron to instruct the Jewish people and to tell all the men, that any man who has a discharge, specifically, a seminal flow from his body, is to be considered טָמֵאtamay (for lack of a better word we will translate this word as ritually impure). In order to be cleansed from that impurity, the person who has the discharge must wash his clothes and immerse in the mikveh at night. The more discharges a person experiences, the more impure one is, requiring a longer period of impurity and additional cleansing rituals.

A woman, too, is subject to the laws of ritual purity and impurity. The Torah states, Leviticus 15:19-30, that if a woman experiences bleeding at the time of her regular monthly period she is in a state of נִדָּהniddah, ritual impurity. Once the bleeding ceases, she is go to the Mikveh. The practice today, is for women to first count seven clean days and subsequently bathe in the mikveh.

The Torah also speaks of other blood flows that do not coincide with the normal period, known as זָבָה zavah, which renders the woman impure. After a single flow, she is impure for only a single day. If it continues to flow, she may, at times, be impure for seven full days. Today, because we are unable to distinguish between menstrual blood and non-menstrual blood, all women are required to keep a minimum of five days of menstrual flow, plus a seven day period of no bleeding before they visit the mikveh.

As uncomfortable as we may be when discussing these issues, the niddah laws are among the most enlightened in human culture, and ultimately reflect Judaism’s uncompromising belief in the sanctity of human life.

In Judaism, there is nothing more sanctified than human life, and nothing more defiling than death. Death, consequently, is regarded as the ultimate defiler. In ancient times, a person who came in contact with death would be defiled for seven days. To be purified, the impure person would need to be sprinkled with the waters of the red heifer, on the third and seventh day of impurity, and then bathe in a mikveh on the night of the eighth.

Although contact with death was not uncommon in ancient times, many of us, in contemporary times, have become rather inured to death. The constant reports, especially through modern technology, of vast numbers of deaths and disasters, have made it virtually impossible to feel a sincere sense of mourning or sadness for the losses. The most common reaction to death these days is often to ignore the discomfort and turn to the sports, fashion, or business reports.

Judaism is determined not to allow human beings to become indifferent to death, because those who are indifferent to death, inevitably become insensitive to life. That is why Judaism required that any time a person came in contact with death in any way, needed to reaffirm life. The ancients would reaffirm life by going to the mikveh, a pool containing “living waters,” the source of all life; after all, humans are composed of 90 percent water. Immersing in a mikveh is comparable to returning to the primordial state of creation, where there was only water (Genesis 1:2). Mikveh is, in effect, a rebirth experience, akin to returning to the womb.

Similarly, the Torah declares, that whoever comes in contact with potential life, such as semen, or an ovum that is not fertilized and has been instead ejected from the body and dies, also needs to reaffirm life by going to the mikveh. In ancient times, men as well as women were required to go to the mikveh to experience this reaffirmation.

Since we have no Beit HaMikdash, no Holy Temple, and no waters of the red heifer, we are unable to properly cleanse ourselves from death’s ultimate contamination. Thus, we are all today in a state of perpetual ritual impurity, since we all, at some point, come in contact with death. Consequently, the laws of mikveh and purification do not apply in contemporary times–with one exception: the requirement that women go to the mikveh at the conclusion of their menstrual period. The legal reason for continuing this regulation is because having relations with a woman who is a menstruant is a separate prohibition recorded in the Torah, in both Leviticus 18 and 20.

Although no reason is given why that particular element of these laws should be practiced even in non-Temple times, it has been speculated that it is because these laws serve a vital second function.

Clearly, the sexual desires are among the most powerful human drives. The power of the sexual drive is so great that it has the ability to obfuscate other types of relationships, especially spiritual relationships. One who is obsessed with sexuality rarely has the ability to properly or meaningfully express love or spiritual emotions—since the basic animalistic drives often take over. Consequently, we frequently lose the ability to declare to our loved ones, “I love you because of who you are, rather than because of what I can get from you.”

The Torah, therefore, mandates that during a period of each month, when the woman menstruates, sexual contact cease. During that time, husband and wife reaffirm their love for one another–reaffirming their spiritual love, rather than sexual attraction. The laws that regulate this behavior are known as the laws of טָהֳרַת הַמִּשְׁפָּחָה–Taharat Ha’mishapchah, Family Purity, and have had a powerful and meritorious impact on Jewish family life throughout Jewish history.

These complex laws of bodily emissions and purifications, which seem so crude at first blush, are truly enlightened. Indeed, one need not believe in G-d in order to benefit from the brilliance and efficacy of Torah rituals, and these laws are the perfect example.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This Shabbat, the Shabbat immediately preceding Passover, is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. On this Shabbat, we read a special Haftarah taken from the words of the prophet Malachi 3:4-24, in which we find the verse: “Behold I send to you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of G-d.” For more information on Shabbat Hagadol, see parashat Tzav 5762-2002.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 19th, and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 20th and 21st, 2019.