Archpriest Alexander A. Winogradsky Frenkel: The Ethics Of Purity

MEMRA – WORDS, Meaning And Faith

A new 2018-19 series of articles shared on the roots and the prospects that unite Eastern and Oriental Oxthodox Traditions to the realm of Jewishness and Hassidism,
Compared semantics and exegetical “paysages” by archpriest Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel (Patriarchate of Jerusalem). Below the eighth article.

Judaism has inherited some rules governing daily life that are directly connected with the Temple. Thus, Judaism is known for its rather strict attitude toward purity and cleanness. Well, in Jerusalem and Israel, some streets could be cleaner, more decent. People could avoid spitting anywhere, anyhow. True, they would scream at you if you take a flower or a bud from a plant. At this point, it is even worse than removing the mother bird from her nest to take her offspring, which is both inhumane, not vegeterian nor vegan. This commandment of Deuteronomy 22:6-7 protects the mother bird, her eggs and fledglings. It only allows taking the young bird and the mitzvah is unique.

It shows that the Mitzvot  (All Commandments as considered by the Jewish tradition) are substantially ethical, dynamic and energetic.

Maimonides wrote about the “great pain of the animals” in such circumstances (Guide to the Perplexed, III, 48). The Noahide laws prohibit the removing of a limb from a living animal. It is forbidden to cause suffering for an animal that cannot fight back. It is of the same caring vein. But the point is that plants and animals have been created before human beings. Thus, they must be respected, preserved as signs of the world’s beauty. Thus, plants are growing as a wonderful miracle in this country that every flower is wondrously marvelous.

There is seemingly a certain gap between this idealistic view, the legal rules that protect some species and our moral attitude at the present. This has been described, scanned, viewed, analyzed, revised and contemplated: Israel might have a series of ethical problems. Frankly, are we all broken up or the bones of the same bones?

How can we be non-judgmental and still responsible for our actions? How do we commit ourselves to any action done by any inhabitants because we all together face the challenge of good and evil? This is why the ” tumah vetoharah = impurity and purity” laws are so important. By the time of the Temple, they allowed to protect the sanctity of the Place and of the people. The Torah, in the Book of Number chapter 19, determines the three major “impurities”: leper, sexual life control and contact with the dead or corpses. Various Talmudic treatises deal with these matters (Taharot-טהרות/Purities, Niddah-נידה / Menstrual, Nega’im-נגעים / Leper, Ohalot-אוהלות / Corpses).

Leper is alas a very extant disease; Niddah is supposedly one of the Talmudic guidelines to enjoy a decent and respectful sexual life. In Israel, people are used to death and the bodies are usually buried very quickly. In the West, there is rather a sort of fear of how to face death which is kept hidden although it is a basic and essential aspect of human experience. It is quite amazing, by the way, that in Western countries, promotions are made to “sell” burial celebrations, not with regards to some ethical or religious considerations, but in order to settle “life courses” and release the children or relatives to pay for the social and economic concerns of managing an after-death “corpses”.

Tumah vetoharah show that impurity can be turned into purity, not by magical washing machine powders or “nikayon – cleaning products”, but by a moral conduct. The Apostle James depicted it in a way that is very close to the permanent Jewish tradition: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained in the world.” (James 1:27). To keep unstained (pure, separate) in the world is what allows us, as believers and/or God-seekers to accept the Commandments or Mitzvot.

The whole process of Judaism is to comply with certain rules that are sometimes not easy to be understood: the mikveh or ritual bath is of that inquisitive nature. Well, it sounds evident that cleanness is better than dirt. Vessels are also to be washed and cleaned carefully as described in Talmud Kelim (Vessels, Instruments). The observance of the laws governing kosher items constitutes a vital question for a thoughtful and humble attitude toward our society and environment. KoSHeR-כ-ש-ר is linked to “gashar\גשר” (to bridge). It relates to a correct and healthy use of food, tissues, textiles, products, utensils, tools, devices, gadgets. On the other hand, “trafut\טרפות” comes from “taraf\טרף” (unclear, non-kosher, Talmud Sanhedrin 43a). Many rules, as going to the mikveh/ritual bath are indeed “chokim\חוקים” or “beyond any reasonable explanation” and “obvious” commandments at the same time. Yes, morals can be full of contradictions. The accomplishment of the Commandments brings more of divine wisdom to a world that often looks “treyf\טרף – split”. The 613 Mitzvot also allow human nature to articulate rational and irrational positions.

Yochanan Ben Zakkai was present on the Temple Mount after the Holy of Holies had been destroyed. He was watching at the site where so many corpses were lying. He answered once to his panicked disciples: “By your lives! A corpse cannot make anybody unclean, nor can the waters make clean; in both cases, God alone can change something because He is the Great King” (Pessikta de Rav Kahana 40a/b).After two millenia of hardships and dramatic, hideous tragedies, Jewish traditions may consider that this commentary could be revised. Too many dead, killed persons have been assassinated andtreated as beasts or non-human “inmates”, “objects”. Just as animals are and have been always violented in terrible suffering. The words of Yohanan Ben Zakkai underscore that the Father of all creatures is acting in a spirit of full spiritual and energetical freedom and liberality.

Purity is at the heart of Jewish and Christian morals. Not at the lowest available price! There is a price of excellence in achieving one or many Commandments. At the first Synod of Jerusalem (45/52), Bishop James wrote a letter in the name of the Early Church. Being a Jew, he released the sole Gentile part of the Church from the observance of the 613 Mitzvot, but imposed the major Noachide rules to the Gentiles. Interestingly, this verse points out a constant and most important feature of the everlasting connection between Jewishness and the Gentile heathen/pagan people in order to build one unique body – not one versus another: “(Jesus said) unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20).

It shows how huge and difficult the challenge is, as the “Pharisees = perushim\פרושים” are those who are unstained in the world and, as the Christians, believe in the resurrection of the dead. The belief that the dead are called to revive, be reinvigorated and live forever seemingly appeared by the time of Prophet Daniel. It does not mean that the Pharisees only are a spiritual party, a social and priestly, religious caste or class. Indeed, they witness for a revelation and humane experience – not either a human need or hope – that life belongs to the Lord and that the “world-to-come” does exist.The permanent temptation of all monotheistic believers is to consider life the way the Sadducees/Tzedokim-צדוקים did. For they, there is no resurrection, no “world-to-come”: death is the deadline. This belief is strongly anchored in the Gentile peoples though they would confess some creeds that life could be eternal, but not defined as such. Jews have constantly been tempted to act as Sadducees: formal ritualization of prayer, Divine Service and absence of true hope in the future. The Sadducee temptation is always creeping around in all Jewish and Christian mental attitudes and morals. Can we trust God to the fullest that, in this and other world there is permanent growth and a possibility to be identified to the Lord’s essence, substance, nature and visible, invisible reality. If there is no eternal life, the morals and ethical principles only exist in order to regulate, fix, correct, compel the humans to behave in such a wise that they are not totally free.

The Pharisees’ hope and belief should not systematically be mocked when we read or hear the Gospel. On the contrary, in the contingent realm of morals that is quite online with the Orthodox Christian ethics defined by the Church Fathers as guidelines of freedom, they open to the values of how and why we ought to be pure and search for integrity, overcome the wounds of impurity.

Purity also means to take care of those who in contact with a death situation, such as orphans and widows. There is more than “charity, acts of loving-kindness-gemilut chassadim”. Eastern Orthodox Churches have also developed many rules to cope with similar issues as “impurity/purity” such as long periods of sexual abstinence during the fasts, purity or protection of natural elements and food. These rules are lining with the kosher regulations in many aspects.

The “mikveh – pl. Mikvaot” (bath of purification) is connected with the service of Temple. The High Priest had to bathe before the Day of Atonement, but in fact much more often. “Ma’yan\מעין” = “fountain, source, sprinkling waters (Tractate Mikvaot 5,1, “a bubbling well” Nedarim 41b), also: bowel, womb, inside (Talmud Niddah 28b)” and is linked to “ayin\עין” which is a “source” and the “eye”. “Ma’ayanot chochmah\מעינות חכמה = the well-springs of wisdom”(Tractate Tosefta Sota 15,3b). Mikveh implies the construction or utilization of living (flowing) waters. They may either fall from clouds in the shape of rains or snow, provided that it melts…

Struggle for purity is a fight against deterioration or wearing effect of time, not the fact of growing old. In the morning prayers, the Jews say: “My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure. You created it, You fashioned it. You breathed it into me… Blessed are You, Lord, Who restores souls to dead bodies – neshamot lef’garim metim\המחזיר נשמות לפגרים מתים“. Thus, men and women are proposed to go through this cleansing bath that is more than a spa, a sauna or the Turkish baths. A checking person may help the woman and eventually the man to be sure that every part of the body has been cleansed accordingly. The Jew rises from under the living water as a new-born. Let’s say that insensitive and stonyhearted people can thus melt like frozen ice into a thoroughly nice drizzle of renewed minds and skins. Jewish tradition suggests bathing this way repeatedly. The Jewish Orthodox, Conservative and Chassidic movements require it every week. On the other hand, when an individual becomes a Jew, s/he should go once to the mikveh (i.e. “aggregating action to the community”), which has been refused by the Ethiopians who came to Israel as Jewish newcomers.

Interestingly, the Jewish and Christian (“Judeo-Christian sounds a bit controversial though by that time there was no mutual excommunication between Judaism and Early local Christianity) baptistery in Nazareth is definitely similar to any mikveh. Seven stairs lead down to the pool through all the steps of temptations. Getting out of the water (baptizein), the person has been purified for the rest of his life and climbs up through the various degrees that bring to holiness. The Christian Orthodox baptism is still very close to the Jewish mikveh, the purifying bath. It Christian traditions do insist that a person ought to be baptized by total immersion in the waters as it is the rule for a weekly mikveh.

Jews and Christians and Christians among themselves often came into harsh conflicting discussion about “living waters”. This is due to a problem of the respect for souls and spiritual identities. The real “Living water” bath maybe only understood with the courageous statement of R. Leo Baeck who was in a prisoner in Theresienstadt. He declared: “Who has revealed to the world the sense for the purity of conduct, for the purity of family? Who has given to the world, to the attention of mankind, the Image of God? The spirit of the Prophets in Israel and the revelation of God to the Jewish people.”(cited by J.Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, p.25).

Even if somehow, we are prompted to get purified, we are overshadowed by a simple traditional statement outlined by Jesus of Nazareth: “You may be the children of your heavenly Father, for He makes the sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). As November, in Polish and Ukrainian “Listopad/Листопад”, quits our chronology and agenda [on December 2, the Julian cal. is still on November 19, 2018], the question is open as it has been throughout all the ages: what makes us “pure”? Who calls us to be “pure”? We are not born to die like the leaves that fall down and are swept away during the autumnal darkening season.

The Church is pure. It is a matter of faith: it is more than any challenge. For many people this assertion may sound “pretentious, a pious lie, a dream, a blind blurring twist”. We can be so arrogant in our Church relationships, so violent in words and judging, expelling, correcting. Still, in Church, we share the One Body and Blood of the Resurrected. It calls all of us, all throughout the globe, to grow and multiply because we are not alien or foreign to each others. Purity is the name of true faith that lessens the burden of distant arrogance or opacity.