A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Leviticus and the Toilet

Folks who actually read the book of Leviticus (there are a few) usually treat it as superstitious, outdated, odd.  After all, who today really needs details about sacrificial offerings that no one makes anymore or needs to be reminded not to sacrifice their children to other gods?   Don’t mix the fibers in your clothes?  Don’t seed your field with different kinds of seeds?  Don’t get near a menstruating woman? Why bother reading this stuff if you’re not interested in how people used to think?

I don’t advocate a return to the world that Leviticus describes, but I do see interesting parallels between the mentality that drives the book and the society in which I live.

American culture also has taboos.  Take public toilets, example.

Judith Plaskow’s fascinating article entitled “Embodiment, Elimination, and the Role of Toilets in Struggles for Social Justice” (Crosscurrents, Spring 08:51-64), addresses the injustice of how toilets are allocated.  She points out that more public fixtures continue to be available to men than to women, even though females need more toilets than males.  Some reasons for the greater need are biological (women menstruate and have more bladder conditions than men).  Some reasons are socially constructed (women are expected to go into stalls that must be locked and unlocked, wear clothing that must be adjusted and readjusted, and often help small children and the elderly with toileting).  Many people appreciate how unjust the racially segregated toilets of the 1950’s were and give some attention to the toileting needs of the disabled, but fewer consider toilet rights for transgender persons and the homeless.


Plaskow argues that the reason that toilets matter so much is that our culture has such deeply engrained taboos about bodily elimination.  In most Westernized cultures, polite people never mention this particular bodily function.  We “excuse” ourselves from the dinner table, we call our public places of elimination “restrooms,” and we follow the rules of bathroom etiquette by ignoring the sounds and smells that come from stalls, never talking at the sink about why we have come into the room.  Plaskow claims that society that “does all it can to hide and deny the excreting body” (p. 60).

It’s these taboos that grant such political importance to unequal toilet access.  Some get the privilege of “maintaining the public appearance of being disembodied” (p. 60) and some don’t.  Some get to operate within the rules of polite culture and some don’t.

The more I think about Plaskow’s argument, the more I agree with her.  And the more I see parallels between my own culture and the book of Leviticus.  Leviticus devotes enormous energy to regulating bodily emissions-blood, semen, and drainage from wounds, and it prescribes that people with emissions be kept away from the community for varying periods of time.  As Plaskow points out, American culture also seeks to keep bodily fluids contained.  “Refined individuals should never smack their lips while eating, and a CEO cannot be seen standing at a urinal next to his employees” (p. 59).  Important people have their own bathrooms.  Women don’t breastfeed in public.

In comparing my world with that of Leviticus, I can see not only our similarities but also our differences.  For example, our taboos are given particular weight by our own beliefs about germs and hygiene-categories that cultures before the eighteenth century (C.E.) couldn’t have used. The culture I live in makes people responsible for avoiding contagious diseases, for protecting their bodies against invasion. Those who have travelled widely, however, know from first-hand experience that not all cultures operate with the same expectations.  Not all assume that people can and should keep themselves quite so protected.

I find Leviticus important, not because I think it should determine how people live today but because it provides a valuable point of cross-cultural conversation.  In seeing how “they” thought, I am encouraged to pay more attention to my own culture’s taboos and assumptions.

2 Responses to Leviticus and the Toilet

  • Thanks for this interesting post, and for your other entries so far. I look forward to following your feed.

    Class discussions about Leviticus are always among the most entertaining because students start squirming and blushing when I push them about issues like this. (I teach in the American south, by the way.) An interesting thing about taboos (and other kinds of embodied ritual) is how ingrained and unrecognized they are.

  • Do you have other examples of taboos that make this point? (that are appropriate to share)

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