Can Personal Things be Religious?

April 20th: Tazria/Metzora
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Back in 1979, when the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Pahlavi Dynasty and brought the exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini back to Iran to rule their new “Islamic Republic,” Americans wanted to know who this religious leader was: What did he believe? What did he plan for Iran? How was his idea of an Islamic Republic going to work?

Journalists quickly got to work, and one of the findings was a book the Ayatollah had written about living a holy life. In excerpts printed in one of the weekly news magazines, we learned the kinds of things he prescribed for believers. Among them—and pardon the graphic details—were instructions on how a male should hold his organ while urinating. The implication was that this guy was going to try to control everything—and, indeed, his Islamic Republic brought a reign of terror to the people of Iran. The largely secular Iranian population suffered significantly, and one can see the gradual but persistent movement back to civil liberties over the last few decades.

I am in no way defending Ayatollah Khomeini or his government’s actions. However, I think that the news magazine misinterpreted the section of his book giving detailed instructions for non-religious activities. While we think of things like personal hygiene as non-religious, this is a new sensibility in human thinking. While we compartmentalize the various realms of our lives, the ancients saw everything as coming from God and everything as having a proper, God-created way to be done correctly. Not only did God create the Torah, but also God created the bladder and urethra. We Jews even celebrate this fact in the following traditional morning prayer: “We praise You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the World, who has fashioned the human body with sublime wisdom, creating in it various openings and chambers. It is well known before the Throne of Your Glory that, if one of the chambers would stay open or one of the openings would be blocked, it would be impossible for us to exist and stand before You in prayer. We praise You, O Lord, Who wondrously heals all flesh.”

Given the physical details of our bodies, traditional religions figured that part of the Divine creative process was how best to deal with our physicality. Thus there are lots of instructions or suggestions for parts of life that we might find shockingly personal.

In the Talmud, we read:
We have been taught: A person should wash the face, the hands, and the feet every day for the sake of the Creator, as it is said, “The Lord has made everything for God’s purpose.” (Proverbs 16.5)  (Shabbat 50b)

Beware of three things: do not sit too long, for sitting aggravates hemorrhoids. Do not stand too long, for standing too long is harmful to the heart. Do not walk too much, for too much walking is harmful to the eyes. It is best to spend a third of one’s time sitting, a third standing, and a third walking. (Ketubot 111.b)

Eight things are harmful in large quantities, but beneficial in small ones: travel and sexual intercourse, riches and trade, wine and sleep, hot baths and blood-letting. (Gitten 70a)

 In Midrash Rabba, we read:
Once, when Hillel went out for a walk, he said he was going out to do a mitzvah. What mitzvah? To take a bath (in preparation for Shabbat). This is a mitzvah? He explained, “If the statues erected to kings in the theaters and circuses are washed and scrubbed by those in charge of them, how much more should we who are created in the Divine Image take care of our bodies. As it is written in Genesis (9.6), ‘For in the image of God was the human created.’” (Leviticus Rabba 24.3)

In the Shulchan Aruch (circa 1565), we read:
One should not sit [to defecate] in a rushed or forceful manner. And one should not force himself exceedingly, so that he might not rupture the anal sphincter. (Orach Chayim, Paragraph 9)

One should not urinate from a standing position lest it sprinkle down upon his legs, if he is not on a high place, or relieving himself upon loose earth… (Orach Chayim, Paragraph 13)

One who delays his cavities [from elimination] transgresses the commandment in Leviticus 11.43, “You shall not make yourselves loathsome.” (Orach Chayim, Paragraph 17)

The thinking is that even the little details of our physical selves are part of God’s provenance and are therefore potentially holy, and this sensibility goes all the way back to the Torah. That is why this week’s passages that deal with ejaculations and menstrual fluid and various other bodily functions are included in the Torah. They too are part of God’s creation and should be treated with dignity and holiness.  

So, while there is ample reason to decry the authoritarianism and tyranny of the Iranian Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s advice on personal hygiene should not be seen as part of that tyranny. It is part of an ancient and multi-cultural sensibility in which every little detail of life is deemed religious. As we learn, we are created in the Image of God—all of us, in every detail.