One problem that causes difficulty in learning about various concepts in Judaism is the translation of Hebrew words. Many of these words have no precise English definition because they express spiritual ideas that have no parallel in English culture.
Such is the case with the words "Tahara" and "Tuma," two concepts which receive prominent treatment in this week's Parsha.
These words are popularly translated as "purity" and "impurity."
In English, the word "pure" implies something perfectly clean, flawless, unpolluted or innocent. Ivory Soap is advertised as "99.44% pure."
A quick check of the word "impure" in your thesaurus will yield synonyms such as contaminated, corrupt, tainted, and unclean.
That is why so many people think that "Tamay" means "spiritually undesirable" or "dirty."
This misconception, coupled with the belief that "Tuma" applies only to women and sexuality, creates the impression that women are discriminated against in Judaism, and that sexuality is considered "dirty."
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Good and Evil, Life and Death
The central tenet of Judaism is that God is one. Absolutely one. There is no force that exists independent of Him.
Man's struggle in this world – the exercise of his free will – is in choosing either to move toward God and reality, or to move away from God, to illusion or nothingness.
We call these choices "good" and "evil." When man makes a choice that moves him closer to God, he is choosing "good." When he makes a choice that moves him away from God, he is choosing "evil" (see Maimonides, "Guide for the Perplexed" 3:23).
Evil has no intrinsic reality. It is the absence of good, or the absence of an open manifestation of God. God's existence can be open and clear to us, or it can be hidden from us.
The open presence of God is what we call "Tahara." A state of God's hiddenness is what we call "Tuma."
In other words,"Tuma" is really a "Tahara-vacuum."
The state of Tuma can devolve upon men, women and animals. When the open presence of God – the soul, or life – leaves a man, woman or animal, that body becomes Tamay.
Sources of Tuma
Let's go back to the English concept of "Tuma" as "spiritually undesirable" or "dirty."
Which would you think is more "spiritually un-clean" – a dead dog or a dead human being?
Most people would think a dog is more "spiritually unclean" because it is a lower form of existence than a human being.
Actually, the dead body of a human being contains a much greater degree of "Tuma."
Because the human being, when it is alive and filled with a soul – the open manifestation of God's presence – has a much greater condition of Tahara. The manifestation of Godliness within a human being is far greater than that within an animal. Therefore, when the soul departs, it leaves behind a much greater vacuum of Tahara, a much stronger Tuma, than that of an animal.
Next in the ranks of "Tuma" is a Yoledet: a woman who gives birth (Leviticus 12:2). The reason she is Tamay is that a degree of spiritual vacuum is created by the departure of the extra life within her – the child.
It is interesting that when a woman gives birth to a girl, her state of "Tuma" is twice that of when she gives birth to a boy (Leviticus 12:5). That is because the presence of a female child within her gives her a greater state of "Tahara." The female bears within her the power to give life, a condition that is an open manifestation of Godliness, and a higher level of "Tahara." The departure of a female child, therefore, creates a greater spiritual vacuum. Hence, the woman is Tamay for a longer period of time.
Whisper of Death
Next amongst the degrees of Tuma is the loss of "potential life." This Tuma affects both men and women.
After having marital relations, men are in a state of Tuma, because of the loss of the "building blocks" of life within them (Leviticus 15:16). And women incur this state of Tuma when they menstruate, because of the loss of potential life within them (Leviticus 15:19).
The Talmud calls this a "whisper of death."
Tuma is not a description of spiritual inferiority, impurity or uncleanliness. Rather, it describes a loss of life.
I hope this helps clear up a misconception.
(based on "Eye of the Needle" by Yitzhak Coopersmith)
Rabbi Shraga Simmons