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  • Writer's pictureEve Was Right

27. How Religious Purity Laws Make Us Scared of Our Bodies

Laws around purity and cleanliness work to create a system of psychological control. They make us fearful - of our bodies, environment, neighbors, and oftentimes, fearful of women as a whole.


Parshah Tazria


*Important attribution note: All quotes listed in this article are credited to the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash. Here is an Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash: the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.


Leviticus 12: 2-5*

“‘When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be contaminated for a seven-day period, as during the days of her separation infirmity shall she be contaminated. On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. For thirty-three days she shall remain in blood of purity; she may not touch anything sacred and she may not enter the Sanctuary, until the completion of her days of purity. 

If she gives birth to a female, she shall be contaminated for two weeks, as during her separation; and for sixty-six days she shall remain in blood of purity.”  

This is the sort of thing I would’ve tried to excuse a couple of months ago. I might’ve said something along the lines of, “Oh, it gives time for the mother to bond with their child.” Now I see that’s bullshit. These rules worked to reinforce patriarchy and cast a shroud of shame around the beauty of childbirth.


I wonder if the Israelites derived these rules in part to weaken the celebration of femininity so prevalent in pagan religions. The female cycle, with childbirth as its pinnacle, was seen as a mystical, powerful event in most pagan belief systems. Attaching these feminine processes to a state of “impurity” helped break a prominent source of female power. 


Of course, man must also be diminished before God, so why not choose genital mutilation as a means to do so? 


Leviticus 13: 2-3*

“‘If a person will have on the skin of his flesh a s’eis, or a sapachas, or a baheres, and it will become a tzaraas affliction on the skin of his flesh; he shall be brought to Aaron the Kohen, or to one of his sons the Kohanim. The Kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin of his flesh: If hair in the affliction has changed to white, and the affliction’s appearance is deeper than the skin of the flesh - it is a tzaraas affliction; the Kohen shall look at it and declare him contaminated.’”

The passage contains random transliterated Hebrew because no one has any idea what these words mean. If no one bothered to translate their meanings into modern language, then you might wonder, how could they have been important? They probably weren’t. They were arbitrary by design. 


We’re witnessing the creation of a system of total control administered by the priests. They took inconsequential, everyday things - such as the extremely normal event of a skin spot - and made it an issue of grave concern. 


Board Meeting Suggestion Meme. Religion asks the group: "How do we control their entire psychology without them knowing?" One corporate go-getter suggests "Tell them normal bodily changes are God's punishment!" Another high-powered employee says, "Make childbirth impure!" The group's slacker asks: "Why do we need to control them?" Guess which one is thrown out the window.

Most of us who wake up with a new spot on our skin think something like, “Oh, I got some sun yesterday,” or, “I’m getting older.” These people had no such luxury. They were overcome with fear of being spiritually contaminated. It was basically a form of religious hypochondria, which is in itself a form of OCD, and it gave the priests near-complete psychological control over the people. 


One could argue that this might have been an ancient response to prevent community spread of communicable skin diseases. However, the rules make no sense in combating disease prevention. For example, the person was not deemed unclean if the skin affliction covered their entire body.


Moreover, if the primary motivation had been quarantine, why were the examinations performed by priests? And why were the descriptions of skin conditions broad enough to cover everything from a pimple to eczema to scar tissue from a burn? Disease prevention was not the reason behind these rules.


Details about these conditions of purported uncleanliness go on for pages. Some of the funnier highlights include someone whose bald patch sprouted a couple of golden hairs, and the appearance of demelanized skin spots like the kind some people get when they’re out in the sun for a while.  Garments made of wool, linen, and leather could also be afflicted.


These rules are the result of an obsessive and intentional effort to consolidate power in the priestly class and to rule over the Israelites’ psychology. They created an environment of unrelenting psychological fear: fear of contamination, their own bodies (because their natural bodily processes became evidence of spiritual contamination and God’s retribution), and fear of women’s reproductive power.


*Again with the Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

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