אף על פי שמותר לאכול אוכלין טמאים ולשתות משקין טמאים, חסידים הראשונים
היו אוכלין חוליהן בטהרה ונזהרין מן הטומאות כולן כל ימיהן; והן הנקראין
פרושים. ודבר זה קדושה יתרה היא, ודרך חסידות שיהיה אדם נבדל ופורש משאר
העם, ולא ייגע בהן ולא יאכל וישתה עימהן: שהפרישות מביאה לידי טהרת הגוף
ממעשים הרעים, וטהרת הגוף מביאה לידי קדושת הנפש מן הדעות הרעות, וקדושת
הנפש גורמת להידמות בשכינה, שנאמר "והתקדשתם והייתם קדושים, כי קדוש אני
Although it is permitted to eat impure foods and drink impure liquids, the early Chassidim ate even their regular foods in purity, keeping away from impurities all their lives. They were called Perushim (the famous and wrongly maligned Pharisees of the New Testament און גליון!). This behavior is considered extra holiness and ways of Chassidus when a person separates himself from the general populace, not touching them nor eating together with them. For such separation purifies the body [by keeping it] from bad deeds. Bodily purity brings about a mind that is holy [rejecting] incorrect opinions. Holiness of the mind causes one to emulate the Shechinah as it says, you should make yourselves holy, and become holy for I am holy.
In MN 3:47 Rambam explains that the reason for the laws of impurity are to inculcate a sense of awe and respect when people entered the Beit Hamikdash. The whole idea of having a place dedicated to the service of God was to create a physical focal point where we can dedicate and concentrate on existential and theological issues. As humans, we have difficulty with abstract ideas. If we cannot touch and feel something in one way or the other, we do not believe it exists. The existence of God and His role in our existence can only be arrived at through deduction and inductive thinking. It was therefore necessary to have a place to which we assign a certain aura of holiness where we can act out our reverence and devotion to HKBH. We created a place where God, who is not a physical entity and thus takes up no space, is present in our minds.
“I repeat that the object of the Sanctuary was to create in the hearts of those who enter it certain feelings of awe and reverence. … But when we continually see an object, however sublime it may be, our regard for that object will be lessened, and the impression we have received of it will be weakened. Our Sages, considering this fact, said that we should not enter the Temple whenever we liked, and pointed to the words: "Make thy foot rare in the house of thy friend" (Prov. xxv. 17). For this reason, the unclean were not allowed to enter the Sanctuary, although there are so many kinds of uncleanness, that [at a time] only a few people are clean.”
The idea of the laws of impurity was therefore a part of the whole process of service in the Beit Hamikdash. In fact, it was the least physical of the types of service performed there. It was a mental focus on watching one self and paying attention at all times as preparation for the real goal of the Beit Hamikdash, the contemplation of God and His actions so that we can emulate them. It is therefore quite understandable that the Rabbis extended this idea to daily life using the application of these complicated rules that involved keeping the mind focused at all times paying attention to every action one does. Seeing the Beit Hamikdash as a necessary concession to the human condition, they endeavored to transcend that frailty and see God’s presence at all times and in all places.
It is interesting that Rambam in this Halacha states that the goal of the laws of impurity are to lead us eventually to correct opinions about God so that we can learn His ways and emulate them. In his Pirush Hamishna in the introduction to Seder Taharot he writes (my translation/paraphrase based on Rav Kafih’s edition)
“They [Rabbis] also said regarding [the laws] of impurity and purity that they are the core [guffei] of the Law. Why not? After all they are the ladder to the [acquisition of the] Spirit of the Holy as they said purity brings about holiness etc…”
Clearly, Rambam here gives us a picture of what to him is revelation and prophecy. It is not some out of the body mystical experience but rather an understanding one arrives at when one learns about and emulates God’s ways. But even more telling is that holiness is not some kind of abstract aura that permeates a place or a person. One is holy when one emulates God, where every action is thought out and works towards a goal and a purpose.
In Hilchot Mikva’ot, at the end of chapter 11, the last chapter of Sefer Taharot, Rambam writes –
[יב] דבר ברור וגלוי שהטומאות והטהרות גזירת הכתוב הן, ואינן מדברים שדעתו של אדם מכרעת אותן, והרי הן מכלל החוקים;
It is clear and obvious that [the laws of] impurities and purities are scriptural decrees. They are not among the things that a person can decide upon [logically] and are therefore classified among the Chukim.
The popular understanding is that there are societal laws, Mishpatim, that are conventions that are necessary for society to function properly. There are ritual laws, Mitzvot, that remind us about important theological matters. These categories are considered rational and sensible. Then there are irrational laws that have no reason at all and we just do them because we are so ordered. They are seen as whimsical, ritualistic and illogical even at times wrong and counter-intuitive. Rambam vehemently disagrees repeatedly in all his writings. Every law is rational and has a reason and purpose all focused towards one goal – make us into perfected human beings. The laws of Purity are categorized as Chukim because the rules themselves are arbitrary. There is no logical reason why, for example, earthenware cannot be purified while metal utensils can. That is a scriptural decree. The concept and idea of purity however is more than logical; it is the core of Torah. They are the laws that are at the top of the pyramid that is the goal of the whole enterprise of Torah - to know God and have correct opinions about Him so that we can emulate His actions.