In my experience, we tend to express and think of sin in terms of personal failure. Sin is an example of not reaching our potential, not creating the relationship with God we might have, making poor choices. All true, and those locutions are helpful in stimulating us to repent and change, to improve and grow.
But we can take that version too far, neglecting another element of Judaism’s view of sin, the extent to which it damages us. One way to see that is to consider the use of the idea of tumah as applied to sin. Ordinarily, we translate tumah as “ritual impurity,” impurity the Torah created for specific ritual reasons, mostly connected to the Temple and its service.
I note already that many traditional Jewish thinkers seem to take even that tumah as more than ritual, as reflecting an actual impurity in the world. Thus, Ramban—in a comment we will discuss again below—sees the avoidance of tumah as valuable even in the absence of a Temple and any need to achieve taharah for the purpose of going there. Others, such as Rambam, treat that kind of tumah as a technical construct of the Torah.
What both agree on, though, is that aside from that form of tumah, there is a meaningful application of tumah outside of that realm. I’d like to review some of those sources and see what they remind us about regarding sin.
Sins That Defile
The topic arises in Shevu’ot 7b, when the Talmud wonders how we know that the goat offered in the Temple on Yom Kippur (brief review—two goats were offered, one sent to Azazel and thrown off a cliff, the other offered in the Temple itself, its blood sprinkled inside the Holy of Holies as well as inside the kodesh, the first room of the Temple), how we know that that goat provides atonement for a particular kind of sin. The Talmud cites a verse in Vayikra 16, that the offering atones for the kodesh mitum’ot Benei Yisrael, from the impurities of the Jewish people.
The Talmud replies, fine, but the Torah refers to idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder as creating tumah as well. Vayikra 20;3 speaks of Molech-worship as defiling God’s Sanctuary (as Tosafot note there, Sanctuary seems to mean God’s Name, since Molech worship did not happen in the Temple; this also alerts us to the possibility that terms like tumah and Mikdash might have broader meanings in the Torah than a particular structure in Jerusalem). Vayikra 18;30 closes a discussion of the arayot, the prohibited sexual relationships, by warning us, ‘al titame’u bahem, do not be defiled by them, and Bamidbar 35;34 warns us to be sure to react properly and fully to all forms of murder, so as not to be metamei the Land of Israel.
The Talmud cites a verse to prove it was right about what the goat atones, but leaves us with an unchallenged claim that these three sins, at least, create tumah. Rashba notes that Ri Migash asserted these were the only three sins referred to as creating tumah, but Rashba himself knew of others, such as the eating of sheratsim, ants, lizards, and the like.
While Rashba leaves that as a question, Tosafot offers two answers. First, Tosafot argue that if these three significant sins—as Ritva reminds us, these are the three that are yehareg ve-al ya’avor, for which a Jew generally needs to allow himself to be killed rather than transgress—are not the ones the Torah meant for the goat to atone, certainly it won’t be lesser forms of tumah. Alternatively, Tosafot suggests that these three aren’t an actual tumah, the Torah just uses the language of tumah. Note that Tosafot’s second answer suggests that the first answer assumed that the tumah mentioned regarding these sins was, in fact, an actual tumah of some sort.
I think the second answer more likely, however, and Meiri certainly did, because he broadened the Talmud’s claim and said that all sins are considered tumah as far as Scripture is concerned (he notes that Yehezkel at one point protests that he has not eaten unacceptable foods, and expresses that as “my soul has not been defiled.”). Accepting that still leaves us wondering in what sense sin creates tumah; certainly not in the technical sense, but then what?
Rabbinic Tumah for Idolatry
To sharpen the question, I note that Hazal instituted actual, technical tumah for items of idol worship. This is “only” Rabbinic, but it does suggest that they saw the gap between technical tumah and sin-tumah as less wide than we imagine, and could see a reason to turn one into the other. Rashba to Avodah Zarah 48b suggests that they did so because of the verse in Psalms 106;28 that refers to the Jews’ worshipping idols as “va-yochlu zivchei metim,” they ate of dead sacrifices (or, sacrifices to the dead). Scripture’s connecting idolatry to death (which does create technical tumah) was their support for doing so as well.
The concept of idolatry as zivchei metim is one that we all may be more familiar with from Avot 3;3, often invoked at meals. There, R. Shimon is cited as saying that three people who ate together without words of Torah (Rashi assumes that birkat hamazon, the joint Grace After Meals, would suffice) are as if they’ve eaten zivchei metim. The ordinary act of eating is now included in that which might ensnare one in a quasi-idolatrous (and, therefore, tumah-inducing state).
The Challenge of Experiencing the Conceptual
Given these two kinds of tumah, the one guided by halachah in the usual technical ways (although we today are less familiar with that area of halachah, since we haven’t had a Temple lo these thousands of years) and the other a more conceptual kind (although with practical ramifications, as we will see), we might not be surprised to learn that the Talmud already recognized—in a phrase that then appears in later halachic literature—that the ritual impurity of objects was treated by Jews as more significant than murder.
It happened thus, in Yoma 23b’s retelling: two priests were racing up the ramp to the altar, to earn the right to perform that day’s service. The one who was about to lose pulled a sword and stabbed his friend. While R. Tsadok immediately found a way to make the assemblage aware of the seriousness of the tragedy, the dying man’s father instead urged people to avoid having the sword become tamei, telling them to take it out of his son before he actually died. The Talmud notes that this teaches us that they took ritual impurity more seriously than murder.
The Talmud adds, by the way, that this wasn’t because they were overly invested in the technicalities of ritual, it was because they devalued murder. Ritva and Gevurat Ari (a Talmudic commentary by R. Aryeh Leib HaCohen, the well-known eighteenth century author of Sha’agat Aryeh) point out that the Talmud cites a verse about Menasheh, a first-Temple king , to support their contention about the event at the end of the second Temple.
It would seem, they suggest, that murder had become devalued already back then, and this story simply expresses that trend. I believe that this has become broadly true of sin, that we have come to devalue it—it is wrong, sure, but not that wrong. The recognition of the tumah of sin is one way for us to return to a proper appreciation of what sin means.
But tumah, other than the technical kind, can be hard to grasp, to feel as a reality. I think there are two ways to see how tradition gave teeth to this vague idea. The first might be called the real world ramifications perspective. Avot 5; 9 declares that exile (the Jews being forced from their Land) results from four sins, idolatry, sexual immorality, murder, and failure to observe shemittah. While the last is a sin that is directly connected to land—we work the land when we’re not supposed to, our punishment is that we can no longer live there—the first three seem personal rather than land-based sins.
Shabbat 33a makes this clearer by noting that murder leads to the destruction of the Temple and the Divine Presence removing itself from the Jewish people. Its source verse is the one we mentioned before. The next piece expands the discussion to include sexual immorality and idolatry, and says that they bring Exile, like the Mishnah in Avot. The Talmud, though, adds that others will come and live in the Land in our stead, as happened to the Canaanite nations whom we replaced. The implication is that the exile that comes, along with replacement by others, is not a function of a Jewish failure to observe these laws, but is a question of the Land and its reaction to these sins.
Defiling the Land
Ramban makes that implication explicit, in his commentary on Vayikra. Ramban takes the verse that says that the Land will spew us out as it did to the nations came before us as a metaphysical truth, for which he believes he has ample this-world support.
Three of his examples seem to me most interesting. First, he notes—as the Talmud did in Ketubbot 110b—that when David haMelech was forced to flee Israel, he characterized it as being told to go worship other gods. The Talmud, from there, says that living outside of Israel is as if one is living without God. For Ramban ,that is because of the literally lesser connection to God outside of Israel.
Similarly, when the Patriarch Jacob returns to Israel from the house of Lavan, as they approach the Land, he warns the members of his household to remove all the idols they had had until then. Ramban notes that they’ve had the idols the whole time—why wait until then to remove them? His answer is that the Land is different.
Finally, he notes the incident in Melachim Bet (II Kings 17) where the king of Ashur exiles the Jews of the Northern Kingdom and brings other peoples to inhabit the land. Suddenly, lions come and begin eating them. When they tell the king of Ashur what’s happening, they say that it’s because these people are violating the ways of the God of the Land. The king brings back a kohen to teach these new people how to serve God, and they do. In Ramban’s reading, these same people had been worshipping these same idols before, but never eaten by lions, because they weren’t in Israel.
Personal Defilement, Loss of Sanctity
Another way to look at the tumah of sin is in its impact on each of us as people. Ramban believes in that as well, in his comment on the Vayikra 19;2, where the Torah says kedoshim tihyu, you shall be holy (or, sanctified). Ramban famously argued that the Torah was creating a blanket requirement to be holy, regardless of specific laws. What is less well known is that his examples evince an ethic of refraining, of not indulging our appetites even where the Torah allows it. Among the recommendations he makes is to guard our mouths and tongues from the filth of disgusting speech and gluttonous eating—these acts, not directly prohibited by the Torah, still lessen us.
Seforno, commenting on the same verse, inserts the word tumah into the conversation, saying we are supposed to avoid the tumah of certain foods, certain sexual activities, and other sins. He notes that when the Torah describes the atonement of Yom Kippur, it says that on this day, before God, titharu, we shall become cleansed. The act of taharah implies a prior state of tumah, defilement. For Seforno, that defilement comes from our moving away from the purpose for which God created us, to become more God-like. Sin moves us away from that, and thus defiles.
Rambam, at the close of the Laws of Mikvaot 11;12 (which also closes his discussion of tumah and taharah generally) suggests that the whole technical realm of tumah is meant to make us aware of the parallel realm of the defilement of evil thoughts, opinions, attitudes, and character traits. We wipe away those defilements by immersing ourselves in the waters of knowledge and understanding, which will lead us to behave better and purify ourselves in those ways.
Inescapably, I think, we are led to see that the metaphor of the defilement of sin is more than just a metaphor, more than just a way to catch our attention. Sin hurts our kedushah, our sanctity, and in some cases produces reactions and responses that can be distressing. We avoid sin not just because we want to be good, but because we recoil from defilement, as we do from other disgusting matter.