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Meditation 1040
Religious futility

by: John Tyrrell

Your thoughts on this Meditation are welcome. Please use the contact page to provide your comments for publication.

This image of an Orthodox Jew flying in a plastic bag to protect him should the aircraft fly over a Jewish cemetery was widely circulated in the last few days.

The basis of this is Leviticus 21:1-4. We'll use the text from a Jewish version:

21:1 Adonai said to Moshe, “Speak to the cohanim, the sons of Aharon; tell them: ‘No cohen is to make himself unclean for any of his people who dies, 2 except for his close relatives — his mother, father, son, daughter and brother; 3 he may also make himself unclean for his virgin sister who has never married and is therefore dependent on him. 4 He may not make himself unclean, because he is a leader among his people; doing so would profane him.

Generally, this passage is considered to mean that these people should not touch a corpse. That's all. But it has come to mean much more

If we start looking at the ritual purity laws relating to the dead for the Kohanim, we find touching expanded through centuries of deep rabbinical thinking into:

Touching (maga) –direct physical contact with a dead body or with certain objects which are direct contact with the body.

Moving (masa) –moving a body or part of a body-even indirectly through the use of intermediary object.

Tenting (ohel) –standing under or entering into a covered area (e.g. a roof, tree, building, etc.) which also overhangs a corpse, or passing directly over a body e.g. walking over a grave.

And then the concept of tenting is extended by at least one Orthodox Jewish sect from just walking over a grave to flying over a grave. Unless you are fully covered by a plastic bag which by some magic, protects you.

So they've gone from a simple taboo against touching a corpse - not uncommon in many cultural traditions - to a taboo at varieties of supposed indirect contact as if there are emanations from dead bodies which can defile a cohen.

But of course bodies decompose, and their constituent parts return to nature. The reality is that once you extend the concept of touching the dead beyond touching an actual corpse, you find you cannot avoid touching. Atoms from the dead are in every breath you take. Atoms from the dead are in everything you drink. Atoms from the dead are in every bite you eat. And atoms from the dead are in every article of clothing you wear - atoms from the dead are even in the kippa the guy in the plastic bag is wearing on his head.

The rules the man in the plastic bag is following were made up by ignorant men with no knowledge of science. The rules are intended to protect against something it is physically impossible to protect against. It really highlights the futility of much religious practice.