Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger
Former Shaliach in Boca Raton (1999-2007)
Currently Executive Director and Community Rabbinic Scholar of Dallas Kollel
The Holiness of Intimacy
Outside of the orthodox community, the laws of family purity are not much talked about these days, and that’s a real shame. There’s so much beauty there, so much potential for uplifting and sanctifying the relationship between husband and wife. And there’s such deep symbolism that cuts to the core of the meaning and the values of Judaism.
Parshat Metzora, which we read this week, presents many laws centered in the realm of ritual purity and impurity. All of them are basically defunct today, because the primary practical consequence of impurity is the prohibition against entering into the precepts of the Temple, and alas, the Temple has been destroyed for almost 2000 years now. But there is one realm of purity and impurity that is still applicable in our times, the last vestige of this ancient system, and that has to do with intimacy between husband and wife. The monthly female menstrual period which brings ritual impurity upon she who experiences it, not only creates a prohibition upon entrance into the Temple, but also renders physical contact forbidden until the end of the cycle when the woman is purified through immersion in the Mikveh. Practically speaking this means that the couple must refrain from intimacy for a period of between a week to two weeks a month, and then renew their vows as it were as they return to each other’s embrace with renewed appreciation when the woman emerges from the purifying waters of the Mikveh.
I’d like to share two powerful symbolic insights into these laws of family purity: Back in beginning of the 12th century, the great poet and thinker Rabbi Yehudah Halevy pointed out that not only is the strongest source of ritual impurity in Torah law the human corpse, but that actually all of the laws of ritual impurity stem from association with death. The principle is that loss of life creates impurity. Building on this insight, in our own generation Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has explained that all the Torah’s ordinances concerning ritual impurity have to do with the Jewish abhorrence of death. Life is the ultimate holiness according to the Jewish worldview and anything that partakes of death stands in opposition to holiness. Applying this to our discussion, menstrual blood is a secondary source of ritual impurity because it is just one step removed from death – it is the direct consequence of frustrated life! The ovum in the fallopian tubes could have been fertilized and have developed into a living, breathing human being – but the opportunity was lost. The menstrual discharge represents the building blocks of life that did not fulfill their potential. It follows that the separation between husband and wife that is mandated by the menstrual period is almost akin to a short period of mourning for the life that did not come into being. What a powerful monthly affirmation of the holiness of life and of our ability to create life!
A second insight: Think of the profound significance of the fact that through the prohibition of entrance into the Temple, access to communion with the Divine Presence is denied for one who is ritually impure, and that in the very same way, marital intimacy is forbidden when the woman bears the impurity of menstruation. The meaning of this parallel is breathtaking: The physical union between husband and wife is compared to intimacy between man and God, and the abode of the Jewish family is likened to the Holy Temple itself.
And just like there are strictures that mandate spiritual preparation before one may approach the Temple and God, lest we take it lightly and not experience the appropriate awe and respect, so marital relations between man and wife are regulated and restricted, in order that physical intimacy be set aside from the mundane and that each spouse approach the other with the sense of holiness and uniqueness that the moment demands.
Today more than ever are we in need of the sanctification that the laws of family purity can bring to our marriages and to our homes. If only we would make the effort to experience it!