Tazria and Metzora are two parshiot that deal entirely with the physical side of life, mankind’s sexuality and skin diseases. The major part of Tazria focuses on childbirth, menstruation and the mother’s status as to when she is pure or impure, tameh or tahor. It is here that many of us have trouble trying to define the terms tameh and tahor.
In classical Judaism the status of tumah is achieved by coming in contact with a dead body or body parts or the soil containing the body; contact with certain body fluids; giving birth; entering a building or roofed structure containing a dead body; and being in contact with a primary source of tumah or an object that has been in direct contact with the primary source; and by contracting tzaraat. In this classical sense tumah is defined as ritual impurity and one that is rendered tameh is ritually impure. The converse of this is the state of being tahor or ritually pure.
The difficulty with the terminology is that it is highly charged and value laden without really providing us with an understanding of what it means to be ritually pure or impure. Rachel Adler in an article “Tumah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings” suggests that tumah is really our confrontation with mortality – the tailspin into darkness and taharah is the reaffirmation of our own immortality – a reentry into the light. I’m not sure I can fully accept this approach because there may be many instances when we are confronted with death or near death but we aren’t rendered tameh.
The concept she introduces however, may be applied to understanding tumah and taharah. Tumah may be viewed as being in a ritual state of suspended animation and because of this status one is unable to be fully participatory in the community and its ritual. For the most part one achieves this status when coming in contact with blood or a corpse; an experience where life and death intersect. In biblical times giving birth although routine was fraught with risk to the birthing mother as well as to the infant. Thus, a women after giving birth is rendered tameh because she is recognized as one who has just completed a journey where life and death intersect.