Family Purity - “Greet one another with a holy kiss”
I was on my way to Jerusalem last Friday morning and as I waited for a bus to come, I saw a car stop in front of me and a young man about 18 got out and greeted another young man right in front of me. He did so using the traditional Arab cheek to cheek approach. Generally speaking, you find men doing it to relatives or friends at special occasions or when they have not seen each other in some time. Normally, the parties will “kiss” the other persons cheek two or three times, but for relatives or very special events like weddings or the like, you will see them “kissing” each other more than two or three times. Such was the case of these two young men who looked as if they were not related, but that they had not seen each other in some time. I heard what they were talking about and one boy told the other that he was going to visit a nearby village and his friend insisted very vigorously that he allow him to take him to his destination. Then, they both got in the car and left.
I thought about this event when I attended the Independence Day celebration at the US Consulate in Jerusalem on July 4 (2007). What a kaleidoscope of people from all different races and backgrounds: Israeli and Palestinian politicians including the new Palestinian Prime Minister among many others) from all political spectrums including the Jerusalem mayor (who I happily introduced myself to); religious leaders from all of the Christian denominations (about 13 are represented in Jerusalem) and all of Jerusalem’s business community were also there. It was quite an event.
However, one thing happened to me that echoed back to these two young men greeting each other and this concerned one of the people that I met at the event. While passing through the assembled crowd, I noticed an elderly Orthodox Jewish man sitting in a wheelchair and I went over to him and introduced myself. Of course, after being introduced, I thought that I recognized who this man was. His name was Rabbi Menachem Porush. Rabbi Porush has just retired from politics and was a member of the Israeli parliament for over 35 years. Rabbi Porush is still an exceedingly powerful political figure in Israel today and his son Rabbi Meir Porush is currently a member of the Israeli parliament. After introducing myself, I talked a little bit about my background and immediately had some common ground with him. He was attended by a younger Rabbi, who I only came to know as “Rabbi David.” They spoke together in Yiddish and then Rabbi David translated my comments to him. He was especially interested in what I had to say after I told him a story about my contact with one of the leading Rabbinical families in New York, that of Rabbi Moses Feinstein, who was one of the leading Rabbis in the world before his death in 1986. He was the de facto leading scholar of Orthodox Judaism in the USA at the time he passed away. I had some contact with his son, Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, in 1996 when I was first doing research for my first book.
What happened next was very interesting because it was a very subtle event that only one familiar with the Jewish faith will understand and appreciate. While I was talking to Rabbi Porush, a young couple came up and also started to speak with him. The young woman, who could not have been more than 30 years old, reached out her hand to shake the hand of Rabbi Porush and he politely declined! A short comment from Rabbi David ensued saying simply: “I’m sorry, but he’s a Rabbi.” There was no further explanation, but I knew what had happened.
Why did Rabbi Porush not allow that young woman to shake his hand? It comes down to the rules of family purity that are outlined in Leviticus 18. There are very specific rules that are laid out in Leviticus 18 concerning, believe it or not, men and women even shaking hands (among other things). The fact is, Rabbi Porush could not take the chance that the young woman was in a state ritualistically according to Jewish law that would have designated herself as not “clean.” Had he have touched her, he could not have been sure that she was not, so he would have then become “unclean” and would have had to visit a ritual purification bath. (rituals baths – known as mikvahs are all over the place here in Israel and they are used regularly by religious Jews in the performance of their faith.) It may sound silly in a way, but the issue of family purity found in Leviticus 18 and found in other sections as well is the reason why he would not touch her hand. [Some of you might be reminded of this in the film The Seventh Sign, which I have brought up before. When Demi Moore’s character goes to meet the Rabbi to help her translate a letter in a mystical Hebrew language, she knocks on the door. Then the Rabbi answers and she asks some questions and then touches the Rabbi. He immediately closes the door expressing his anger at her actions and will not have anything to do with her after that (because he thought that he was made “unclean.”) Then she meets the young Jewish boy who then gets involved with her in the rest of the film and he explains that she was not supposed to touch his father (once again because of the family purity laws).
So, now how does all of this relate to the issue that serves as the heading for this short section: “Greet each other with a holy kiss?” The point is, we find this phrase used by Paul four times. These are: Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; II Corinthians 13:12 and I Thessalonians 5:26. Now isn’t it interesting that Paul encouraged these Gentile churches to greet each other in this fashion. Certainly, they did touch each other in the process and more importantly, Paul himself must have been “greeting people with a holy kiss”; that is, he was physically touching Gentile people! Note in I Corinthians 16:19, he even mentions “Aquila and Prisca (a woman) and then he urges them to greet each other in this fashion. Isn’t it interesting that Paul seemingly was not in these occasions adhering to the Jewish laws of family purity, which were essential elements of the life of a religious Jew in the first century. These laws are still in force on all religious Jews today who are required to rigorously keep them, but a preliminary examination of these texts indicates that Paul was not adhering to the laws of family purity found in Judaism very rigorously if at all. This may have been different when he was in Jerusalem and undertaking religious observances associated with the Temple, but when he was in Gentile areas, he seems to not have been keeping kosher when it came to family purity laws.