For the life of all flesh — its blood is its life. Therefore I say to the Israelite people: You shall not partake of the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Anyone who partakes of it shall be cut off. (Leviticus 17:14)
The Book of Leviticus could be nicknamed "The Journal of Blood and Water." Throughout its chapters we find the words tamei — translated as "impure," and tahor — translated as "pure" — as markers of a system of taboos so strong, the penalty for daring to dismiss them is kareit, or "excommunication." The taboos for certain sexual practices are painstakingly outlined in chapter 18, the section of Acharei Mot that we read on this Shabbat.
But what the Torah deems as tamei and tahor are not actually attached to any form of physical cleanliness. Anthropologists note that "taboos" are the system by which certain objects or persons are set aside as either sacred or accursed. Such objects or persons inspire both fear and respect.
It is worth exploring our own displeasure and discomfort with the word "taboo" and why we often discard any ritual or idea that is linked with it. The word taboo is of Polynesian origin (the words "tabu" in Tongan or "tapu" in Maori), and the original Polynesian term was introduced as a social construct through the writings of Sigmund Freud who then linked it specifically with sexual prohibitions (such as "incest taboo") in his book, Totem and Taboo.1
But societal taboos have the ability to bond a disparate body of people together, creating a group identity. Chaim Fershtman, Uri Gneezy, and Moshe Hoffman write in their article, "Taboos and Identity," in the American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, May 2011: " . . . taboos are strong social norms; norms which are sufficiently strong that may be viewed as sacred. Every time an individual's behavior diverges from a norm, this act impacts on the other members of society . . ."2
And taboos have a positive aspect of acknowledging mystery around something that we humans find inexplicable, awesome, or extraordinary. In her essay, "Becoming Woman: Menstruation as Spiritual Challenge," Penelope Washbourne writes, "A taboo expresses this feeling that something special, some holy power, is involved, and our response to it must be very careful."3
What happens when we reject our own received biases and recast our long-held assumptions about taboos, specifically around blood? We who are prone to shouting "cooties!" should explore, instead, the positive and sacred aspect of what today's parashah is trying to teach us.
Sforno, the 15th century Italian commentator, has a teaching on our verse that reads: "This is because the blood contains something almost intangible. Seeing this ingredient is the closest to anything completely intangible in this terrestrial universe . . . " Something very special, and some holy power is going on here; something awesome and extraordinary. It is taboo in the most positive sense of the word.
Blood is to be avoided in the realm of eating and sex, as shown in Leviticus 18:19, forbidding sex with a menstruating woman. Yet blood is also the same substance that atones for the community in Leviticus 17:11: "For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life."
Blood both sustains and endangers; it is the medium of plague or deliverance. Thus blood has, like every potent symbol, the double quality and the twin potential of birth and decay, purity and impurity; the mixed metaphor of fear and power, contact and avoidance dominates all the Torah's passages around blood. We don't touch it, we don't eat it, we don't use it — unless it is for sacred purposes.
In Genesis 4:10, it is Abel's blood that cries out to God for justice.
In Egypt, it is the clean drinkable waters of the Nile becoming blood that begin our deliverance.
On Pesach, it is the blood of the lamb painted on our doorposts that saves us.
In b'rit milah, it is the blood of the circumcision that sanctifies us.
For women, it is the monthly blood that creates life itself.
The Torah, in its ancient and perhaps awkward way, attempts to remind us that something as mundane as the blood of an animal has within it a microcosm of all that we hold holy, and of life itself, a gift that we should never, ever take for granted.
Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, in German (Boston: Beacon Press, 1913)
Chaim Fershtman, Uri Gneezy, and Moshe Hoffman, "Taboos and Identity," American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, May 2011, p. 140
See Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, edited by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1979), pp. 256-7
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the founding rabbi of City Shul, downtown Toronto's new Reform congregation. Before that, for twenty years, she was the director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning. She is the author/editor of four books on women and Judaism (published by Jewish Lights Publishing).