Saturday, February 4, 2017

Celebrating Candlemas (The Ritual of the Purification of the Virgin Mary)

My husband wrote an article last year in relation to this subject and celebration that is pertinent to our sometimes mixed up Christian understanding of Jewish ritual purity as it pertains to women.  At the end of the article there are links to 3 other articles written by Jewish women that are an excellent read and most helpful in understanding the subject.

“Purity” as Potential for Life - Dell Bornowsky

This is an adaptation of my response in Nov. 2013 to the blog post “Our Filthy Metaphorsby Carol Howard Merritt, a Presbyterian preacher,   In reference to Isaiah 64:4-9, she asksHow can we struggle with these demeaning figures of speech?”  Isaiah 64:4-9 in the NRS reads:  We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.”  A more specific translation in the NET version reads:   We are all like one who is unclean, all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight.”   
I had previously done a bit of research on Hebrew ritual purity in order to preach on the Feast of The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (AKA the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, AKA Candlemas).  I discovered that although Anglican and Eastern churches retain a ritual sometimes called the Churching of Women, most related commentaries miss almost entirely the foundational Hebrew understanding that in this case ritual “Purity” symbolizes the potential to produce life.  This loss of understanding leaves Gentile Christians with the impression that the so called “filthy metaphors” in Torah somehow imply that women’s biology related to reproduction is “dirty”.  In response to Carol’s question “Is there any way to get beyond these harmful metaphors?” I responded:  I think there is.
The “filthy metaphors’ are troubling perhaps in part due to limited English translation choices for the Hebrew TAHOR, clean, and TAME, unclean (taharah and tum’ah).  It seems the Levitical notion of ritual impurity includes more than either physical filth or moral sleaziness.  An initial reading of Torah doesn’t necessarily alleviate confusion because instructions regarding physical biological wellness such as practical steps to avoid or recover from disease or physical contamination, are mixed in together with instructions and practices related to spiritual and RITUAL purity.  Nevertheless the connection between physical health and ritual purity can be seen in that both pertain to or symbolically illustrate a basic belief that life is better than death.  Interestingly Japanese Shinto has similar attitudes and practices.  As more and more Gentile followers of Jesus didn’t feel the need for Mosaic Torah observance the meaning of ritual purity became even more obscure.  (related issues were controversial in Jesus time, ie. Mark 7:1-30)  But the “Gentilization” of the early church brought with it an even greater loss of understanding of the significance of Levitical purity laws which I believe illustrate the preference in Torah for life over death.  
My reading of the purity laws regarding menses is one that actually celebrates rather than detracts from your observation that women “make people”.  Women’s participation in that divine work of creating and imparting LIFE is precisely what is being honoured.  The gospel of Love in Torah is that God loves people so much, that even those who might have been, but never actually came into existence are mourned.  Far from being the remnant of some primitive misogyny, ritual purity related to menses is the opposite: a way of honouring female pro-creativity.  This particular type of blood is considered to make “unclean” not because of any unpleasantness in its passing or because of a general relationship to a woman’s sexual and procreative potential, but more specifically and precisely because potential people have not been made.  Read this way, the point of the parallel in Isaiah’s simile is not that menstrual rags are repulsive but rather that they represent fruitlessness, and failure to be life giving.  This enables us to  understand to the divine dismay at their purported “righteousness”.  The rags are not simply an analogy for repulsiveness but rather it is the inability or the loss of potential to produce real life that is mourned.
After a Jewish woman, through menses, loses her monthly potential to “make people” she immerses herself in the mikveh symbolizing the waters of creation, and is restored to the role of potential life imparter.  Through such rituals we participate in, and model a kind of love for life which is so strong that it mourns not only the loss of life, but even the loss of the potential for life.  If there is a tendency in Christianity as you say to make reproductive powers unclean, we probably got that notion from the Gnostics rather than from the Hebrew Torah or our Jewish roots.  This is a tendency we may avoid if we understand “Purity” as Potential for Life!   

Contemporary Jewish practices observe and celebrate this kind of divine love for life. Three Jewish women:  Nechoma Greisman, Chana Weisberg and  Dr. Susan Handelman contribute explanations of this celebration and practices here.   
Roman Catholic Scholar Jerome H. Neyrey, provides a review of research and resources:  Holy/Profane: The Idea And System Of Purity here.

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