As we celebrated twenty years of Harry Potter this past week, I couldn’t help but think about some of the magical and mysterious rituals created by JK Rowling. Whether it was Voldemort dividing his soul into multiple parts and hiding them in common objects or Professor Snape making an unbreakable vow or Harry giving a house-elf clothing in order to free him, ritual played an important role in Harry’s world.
But as strange as those rituals may seem, they’ve got nothing on this week’s Torah portion in which we learn about the Red Heifer ritual. A purely red female cow was slaughtered and then incinerated. Its ashes were mixed with fresh water to create a solution which had the power to purify those who had become ritually impure through contact with the dead.
In an ironic twist, though, all of the individuals involved in manufacturing this liquid became impure, but they could return to the community in the evening. In creating something so pure that it can purify people who have come into contact with death, the Priest and his assistants become impure themselves. How is that possible?
Albert Baumgarten – a scholar of Second Temple Judaism – wrote that purity is actually about equilibrium. Death is a source of defilement and must be countered by the purifying properties of the red heifer and ash solution in order to return a person to inner balance. However, too much contact with the solution in the absence of impurity takes one too far in the other direction, leading to imbalance and impurity. It is too powerful.
In other words, it is possible to be TOO pure and OVERLY sanctified.
I couldn’t help but think about this principle as I read about the crumbling of the compromise over worship at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Not sure what I’m talking about? Click here.) In their pursuit of purity in worship, the orthodox rabbinate and orthodox political parties in Israel have exerted monopolistic control over the Western Wall for the 50 years that it has been under the control of Israel. It is run like an orthodox synagogue instead of a gathering place for all of the world’s Jews.
As a result, most Jews cannot worship at the Wall in the kind of service to which they are accustomed. Families cannot stand together at the Wall after making a pilgrimage together – perhaps for the only time in their lives.
Our orthodox brothers have put purity ahead of treating their fellow Jews with love and respect. As a result, they are out of balance. They are no longer in a state of equilibrium. In their pursuit of purity, they have become impure.
Let us hope that they purify themselves and return to the community before too long. No matter how strange our rituals may, at times, seem, they are designed to unify us and not divide us.