Ritually Unclean

Posted on June 4, 2011


Does it make sense for a God who creates all animals to call some clean and some unclean? To attach moral significance to everyday necessary activities, like cleaning or burying the dead, in such a way that a subclass of people is formed to do those distasteful things? To send to Earth one-half the population who will be ritually unclean about one-fourth of their lives?

As a reformed feminist, it would be understatement to say that I’ve struggled with these questions.

My trust in the character of God grew before my understanding of what the heck he was doing, so it’s been a long experiment in “hide and watch,” as my dad used to say when the whole picture was not immediately clear but would eventually be.

It’s interesting that many “laws” are established, especially by God, because he seems to know how everything is going to fall out in practice, not because he has a vested interest in what we’re going to think about it. Hence, swine or crustaceans are not particularly substandard animals, but in a culture where parasites could easily make their way into the meat or it would be difficult to preserve or prepare them, he simply told them not to eat it. In a society without the benefit of modern medicine or a varied and healthful diet that would bring its added immunity, there were strict guidelines regarding body fluids and illness. Situational laws for a specific time and circumstance. Ritual uncleanness.

I’ve thought since about how women were considered in ancient Israel. A thorough reading of Isaiah paints a God who is keenly aware of a woman’s heart, with metaphors drawn from the pains and joys specific to women. I think it’s highly unlikely that God is sexist. So why would she be considered unclean, at his definition, so much of her life, from activities that he views as holy?

In modern western society, women outlive men on average 5 years (30 years ago it was 7 years – looks like longevity-parity came with employment-parity.) 90% of the people aged 110 and older in the world are female. Men are more likely to die in accidents, whether intentional (suicide, violence, war) or unintentional (car accidents.) Men are more likely to die from injuries or disease or from any of the leading causes of death than women and those numbers far outstrip even illnesses to which only women fall prey (like breast cancer.) This is true across cultures, once mortality from childbirth is stabilized. And despite the costly shifting of energy from constant cellular repair to reproduction, women still live longer.

This is the reality no matter how women are treated. Let that sink in for a minute.

The most galling condition in all of creation, to me, is the fact that one-half of the world’s population for more than 6000 years has largely been treated as substandard, less intelligent, and unworthy of equal protection under the law. That God could send one-half of his treasured children to be, often, the slaves of the other half has been my biggest sticking point in understanding the nature of God.

Interestingly enough, however, it hasn’t made a hill of beans difference in the long run how men have behaved.

Women go on being women, nurturing families and adding their particular flavor to the culture, no matter how they are treated. And they outlive their captors. Without exception, in societies where women are treated with some measure of equality, wars are fewer, children are healthier, and there is a general elevation in all areas of civilization. Modern change organizations get this and target women’s issues as a means of affecting change in the larger culture.

So women are powerful, no matter how they are treated, and are good for society when they are treated well. But why unclean?

It occurs to me what a delightful benefit it would be to be left alone for seven days during menstruation. Modern culture does not offer that to women. As delightful as temple service would be, how nice to have a one-week rest from all moral obligations to go do this or that. I honestly think that if someone decided that I was unclean and that they’d have to do things themselves during that time, I’d have little to complain about. Call it “mommy timeout” and have a quiet little inner celebration.

I have often wondered if the forced purging, not just of an organ’s inner lining, but of emotion, frustration, and the illusion of control that a woman monthly endures is one of the key factors that contributes to her longevity. To have to stop and rebuild her very life force monthly, to reach down to her bones to be renewed, to be reminded regularly of her own reliance on God and that she can’t control the process of regeneration – is this in reality a gift, much as the delight of a week of solitude is, masked as ritual uncleanness?

And how has it enlarged my heart and opened my understanding to be treated unfairly? If life’s true purpose is to grow infinitely more aware, a little opposition seems key to accomplishing that. And if these situations are all transitory, it’s less important what one temporarily receives than what one ultimately gains.

God is fond of wrapping presents oddly, I often think to see if we’re really paying attention. He is not responsible for the worst abuses men have perpetrated on women, and he’s also not responsible for their condescending behavior and the myriad of obnoxious bad attitudes that have seemed to afflict the bulk of them throughout history. If men were determined, by the traditions they evolved, to interpret ritual uncleanness as a moral issue and to justify themselves in God’s law, that really didn’t affect either God or women. The point was that women were protected, for a week a month and for weeks after childbirth, no matter what the whole society thought about the matter.

That’s just a cool plan. I like him better every day.

*To be fair, enlightened men all through the ages have thoroughly understood the divine nature of women and have not confused ritual impurity with sin or character weakness. I am surrounded by men who are good, fine examples of God. I just wish the world at large, present or past, enjoyed a similar milieu. One day, it will.

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