Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Tamei and Tahor

This quarter is a lot of Jewish history and literature. I'm sitting in (finally) on Rabbi S's weekly Torah study (Torah in an academic context), taking an independent readings in Jewish Social History and a seminar on Jewish Literature (Memory! Diaspora! Etc!). It's making my brain spin.

Yesterday I spent the morning reading the memoir of a Jewish woman who grew up in a Galician shtetl, and was killed by the Nazis. She sounded like my grandmother. Every Jewish woman's memoir sounds like my grandmother. I don't know if it's the Yiddish or the way Yiddish translates into English. I don't know if many Jewish women's memoirs have similar themes, or if I only notice what's familiar. Jewish American assimilation memoirs especially read the same way: "Ve escaped ze olt country, ve came to America, abandon olt useless traditions, raise American children. Now our grandchildren want to get back to their roots, vy? For vat purpose?"

Anyways. I spent the morning reading the memoirs and thinking about my grandmother. Then I went to Torah Study where we discussed the concept of Tamei and Tachor.This is a concept I have been discussing with Rabbi S. anyways, because my friend has cancer, and is struggling so painfully with chemotherapy and whatnot. But the tamei/tachor concept was even more powerful after reading this memoir, and after visiting my grandmother in the hospital over the break.

Tamei is often poorly translated into "unclean" or "impure" but it really refers to the time when someone has come into contact with life-and-death. This includes birth, sex, menstruation, touching or seeing a dead animal or person, wet dreams, etc. Tachor is the rest of the time. When someone is Tamei, they have to ritually separate themselves for varying amounts of time. Then there is immersion in natural waters (ocean, rain). Then they must bring an offering to the Holy Temple, which has been destroyed twice. Since the temple has been destroyed, we are all, technically speaking, Tamei. We are all not-quite-Tachor, no matter how many times we bathe in the ocean. The life-and-death transition is not one we can escape. Since the Holy Temple no longer exists, it was decided that women should maintain the memory of this tradition by ritually bathing after menstruation, a practice many Orthodox Jews follow. For me, though, the main thing is that coming in contact with life-and-death transitions deserves its own space, it's own "time out," because life-and-death transitions force us to think about our own mortality.

After that, I got the call from the local bookstore found out that I won a short story contest for my story about Judaism, food, body image, family, culture. My great-grandmother (of blessed memory) figures prominently in the story. When I called my mom to tell her the good news, she was at my grandmother's house.

Then I came back to the Bunker, where I found that a friend had posted a link to a really wonderful photographer's work. It's morbid, but I think it's beautiful...he photographs people right before they die:
It's the only time, he says, when his subjects are honest, vulnerable. They don't force themselves to smile.

This, after discussing Tamei and Tachor. This, after I spent the morning with the memoir of another woman who died in the Holocaust, whose voice is inexplicably like my grandmother's and like the voices in every other Jewish memoir I've read - that of Gluckel of Hameln, and Kate Simon in Bronx Primitive. This, after I found out that my story about Judaism and family won an award. And I had only an hour to go before my Global Jewish Lit course, where we talked about Judaism, memory, exile vs. diaspora, and conceptualizations of "home."

"Vat? You vant ve should live in the past forever?"


Sammy Finkelman said...

>> Tamei is often poorly translated into "unclean" or "impure" but it really refers to the time when someone has come into contact with life-and-death.

I think a fairly good translation of Tamei might be "defiled" It is better than "unclean"

Sammy Finkelman said...

>> Tachor is the rest of the time.

Not tachor - Tahor. It is a Hey not a Ches/t. Tahor is sometimes translated as pure, which might do.

>> it was decided that women should maintain the memory of this tradition by ritually bathing after menstruation,\ <<

No, that is to remove the milder Tumah of Niddah. It is not Zecher L'Churban. A woman is not considered free of menstrual blood until that is done. The women undertook by themselves later ratified by the rabbis, to take a longer period of time, than the minimum 5 days as a precuation against really being a Zav. But according to Ben Ish Chai thiese extra 7 days would n apply if the husband has been away the whole month and she has not been with him (little known fact)

jakerosen said...

My mom was a a Holocaust survivor and it was fun to read your description. I also reminded me of my daughter Aliza. We believe that if you take the Torah seriously, you need blood to be shed in order to become clean ourselves. Vayikrah 17.
Tahor ~ pure or clean
Tamei ~ defiled or tinged with death

jakerosen said...

It is me again ... youn remind me of my daughter. Her Grandmother's memoir is on a blog:
Peace and Love,