The Significance of the Red Heifer

When I think of the red heifer I think of the former kosher restaurant in Washington DC that I did not have a chance to attend.  I also think of a cow that will be slaughtered, have its ashes mixed with water and sprinkled on someone’s forehead to atone for his/her sins.  This is the function of the red heifer that we read about in the Bible and on which I focused an extended portion of my preparatory year of rabbinical school with Masechet Hagigah.  Why do we have such a tradition and why do we repeat it every year in the third of the four special Shabbatot before Pesach?

In Numbers 19:2, we read about the taking of “a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.”  This cow would be slaughtered, and its ashes would be mixed with water and then sprinkled on the person who committed the transgression.  That person would then be atoned for his/her sins.  It was reserved for the most serious sins and also for someone who had become טמא (impure) due to exposure from a dead body.  This concept is difficult to take in an age where many of us do not wish for a return to animal sacrifices and can hardly fathom sprinkling ashes on someone as a means of atonement.

Why does this concept of the red heifer matter to us?  After all, with the destruction of the Temple, we all are considered טמא.  The red heifer does have great significance to a group who would like to create a third Temple.  As shown in the recent TV series DIG, such a group is working on genetically engineering red heifers in order to make priests טהור (pure) so that they will be able to resume their sacrificial functions.  So far every heifer that has been created has had a blemish making it unfit to be used for sacrificial purposes.  It is only a matter of time, however, before there will be a creation of an unblemished red heifer at which point they might take other steps towards ensuring that their dream of a Third Temple becomes a reality.  For these people, the red heifer is not some metaphor or abstract concept but a tangible entity that can be used in a reactionary move towards Temple times.

For most of us, the idea of restoring the Temple and returning to sacrifices is undesirable to say the least.  However, I believe we cannot ignore this idea, as uncomfortable as it might be for us.  We need to come up with a modern theology for understanding the role of the red heifer in order to counter the traditional idea that it is needed to restore us to a state of purity.  To do this, I would argue that we need to determine what the red heifer means to us.  Perhaps it means a society where everyone is judged as pure and where we can all be at peace with one another.  Maybe it is the ideal to which we want to aspire, especially considering the existence of a red heifer is a rarity.  For some of us, the red heifer might symbolize the entity that is most precious and valuable to us, as that is what it was to our Israelite ancestors.

Whatever the case may be, it is crucial that we ascribe some significance to this creature which has its own special Shabbat devoted to it.  It may not have the literal significance that it had for our ancestors or that is still has for some Jews but since it is in our holy corpus it must be imbued with some form of meaning to us in the present day.

We have examined a topic that is troubling to some of us, the red heifer, which was used to purify those in the greatest states of impurity.  This animal still has much meaning for fundamentalists in Israel, who are working on engineering red heifers for the creation of the Third Temple.  We looked at different meanings that the red heifer can have for us as liberal Jews in the modern day.  It is understandable that some of us might still prefer not to address the red heifer altogether either because it is so foreign to the form of Judaism that we practice or because it does not seem relevant.  Nevertheless, I feel that it is important to develop a way that the red heifer fits into one’s Judaism, even if it is strictly metaphorical, because it is a part of our religion and we come across it year after year.  May God give us the insight to figure out a personal connection to this valuable piece of our tradition.  Ken Yhi Ratzon-may it be our will to do so.

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