I Feel Defiled


In my book, The Fabric of Religious Life in Medieval Ashkenaz, I highlight the fact that Ashkenazic Jews experienced their spiritual states physically. Things that were pure were experienced as physically attractive, while those things that were prohibited were experienced as physically repulsive. Hence, there developed among them a custom that when a pot absorbed something non-kosher, not only did they purge (i.e. kasher) it, they would bring it to a ritualarium (mikveh) to purify it.

Similarly, spiritual states were experienced both emotionally and physically. Based upon that reality, Jews traditionally immersed themselves in a Mikveh as part of their process of repentance (an echo of which is found in the practice to go to Mikveh before Yom Kippur—a custom that should be observed by both men and women).

This sensitivity, physically experienced, has not passed from the world.

It is famously told that Rav Herzog זצ”ל, as part of his indefatigable attempts to retrieve Jewish babies who had been in monasteries and convents during the War, met with Pope Pius XII on March 10, 1946. Rav Herzog asked him to publicly call on priests across Europe to disclose the location of the Jewish orphans. The pope asked for additional information but was essentially evasive. [Fifteen years ago, it emerged that a number of months later the Pope issued a letter forbidding priests from returning the children.]

Now, Rav Herzog was, aside from being a towering Talmid Hakham, a very sensitive and insightful person. He realized he was being played by the Pope, and was so shaken and felt so defiled by his encounter that upon emerging from the Vatican he told the person accompanying him: ‘Quick! Get me to a Mikveh!’

However, one need not invoke an episode of such dramatic import to understand the physical expression of spiritual or psychological encounters with the dark side. The Rabbis, for example, maintained that the malady of Tzara’at , was imposed as a punishment for tale-bearing and gossip. Whatever the condition was clinically, it was obviously repulsive. It mandated the quarantining of the afflicted person, and contact with him or her engendered an obligation to purify oneself in a Mikveh. When I was younger, I didn’t fully appreciate the power of this idea; that is until about thirty years ago. I was walking with my wife on Shabbat afternoon, when we encountered a person, who I later learned was a notorious gossip. We greeted the person, who then launched into an unbelievable torrent of gossip about people in the neighborhood. We tried to get away, but the person kept following us, spewing forth a flood of ‘Lashon Ha-Ra’ (lit. ‘Evil Tongue’). Finally, we succeeded in escaping their clutches. At that point, my wife and I looked at each other, and both of us expressed a real need to take a shower as a result of the experience.

I’m writing this today, not because it relates to the Torah Portion of the week. This week is not Parshat Tazria or Parshat Metzora which address the laws of Tzara’at. This Shabbat we will read Parshat VaYera (a challenging Parsha in its own right, to put it mildly).

I’m writing this because I am literally physically and emotionally shaken by an encounter I had yesterday on Facebook with people who are (‘were’?) part of my Modern Orthodox community, one to which I devoted twenty years of my life before coming on Aliyah, and to which I am periodically asked to contribute (and happy to do so). I had the temerity to point out that a Biden presidency raises serious concerns for Israelis about Iran. I observed that the salvation that so many American Jews see in a Biden victory is perceived by the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews as potentially life threatening because of his declared intent to re-engage Tehran, remove sanctions and restore its window to nuclear weapons. Note, I was not referring to differences of opinion over this candidate or that. I was referring to a specific issue and to the tragic fact that Jews in different countries can have different interests, face different existential needs and threats; and that sometimes these are in direct conflict.

What I got was a tsunami of abuse because, ipso facto, my remark meant that I must be a supporter of Donald Trump. It must be that I embody all of the sins of American Orthodox Jews (who largely supported him). It must be that I embody the apartheid government of Israel. It must be that I am devoid of Humanity, and I am an educated moron to boot. Moreover, for my information, any part of the Torah that doesn’t align with a progressive social agenda is, per se, vile and illegitimate. Jewish National Identity and Self-Definition are Racism. The State of Israel has no legitimacy until there is a settlement with the Palestinians. Israel’s concerns about Iran are overblown and are more due to Republicans than Democrats. And finally, something I really heard only for the first time, I encountered deep and abiding loathing (nothing less) for Americans who’ve cast their lot in with their brethren in the Land of Israel.

I feel defiled.

I am sure that my interlocutors of yesterday will ( and with some justification) give detailed examples proving of all of their assertions, and cases of disrespectful behavior by others. They will victoriously dismiss everything I’ve written here. The point is, though, that ‘whataboutism’ is beside the point. For I am not here addressing specific issues and flaws, of which there are many on both sides (except for the Torah, which, as the Word of God is, for me as an Orthodox Jew, Perfect). I feel defiled by the Hatred, the Anger, the Loathing, the obtuseness and the Arrogance the spewed forth in my encounter yesterday. Hatred, Anger, Loathing, Arrogance…these are not only the path to the Dark Side. They are, Hazal teach us, a form of Avodah Zarah.

The Mishnah teaches us that Avodah Zarah defiles.

I need a Mikveh.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.
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