• Samuel Lebens

Vaeira and the Poo-Taboo

In this week's Parsha [weekly reading], on two occasions, Moses is told to confront Pharaoh on the banks of the Nile (Exodus 7:17; 8:16), early in the morning. The Midrash wants to know, why was Pharaoh inevitably to be found by the river, early in the morning. It suggests the following:

Why did Pharaoh go to the waters early in the morning? Because the wicked one boasted that since he was a god, he had no need to go to the water to relieve himself. Therefore he went out early in the morning so that no one would see him performing a demeaning act.

In order to uphold the pretense that he was a god, Pharaoh could only go to the toilet early in the morning, before anyone else was awake. So committed to the lie that he was living that he would rather hold in his excrement all day long, and suffer tremendous discomfort, until he could make a clandestine trip to the lavatory. All of this to cover up the fact that he was a human. How very human! And, as his secret trip to the privy comes to an end, he's caught red-handed by Moses, the messenger of the only true God.

Perhaps, we're all a little like Pharaoh. We like to imagine that we are each the protagonist in a meaningful story. We cling to those verses in the Bible which tell us that we were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28), that we are only a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8), and that we – personally – have been crowned with God’s own glory and honour (Ibid).


And yet, we cannot ignore the fact that we are animals. No wonder that we are so disgusted by excrement. It reminds us of our lowliness.


Admittedly, there must be other factors in play in the emotion of disgust. But, it has been noted that elicitors of disgust tend to be reminders of death or of our animal nature (Rozin, et. al, 2008). We simply don't want to remember that we're animals.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

As Montaigne put the point, somewhat coarsely (forgive me):

And upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses.

Ernest Becker observers that "this epigram makes people laugh because it seems to reclaim the world from artificial pride and snobbery". But if we re-frame the epigram to emphasise that, even on the highest of thrones, we cannot escape the fact that we'll be sitting over "a warm and fuming pile of [our] own excrement" — then, according to Becker, "the joke is no longer funny. The tragedy of man's dualism, his ludicrous situation, becomes too real." I know of no better dramatization of that ludicrous situation than the following excerpt from Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being; an excerpt about Stalin's son Yakov (again, please excuse the uncouth language):

Captured by the Germans during the Second World War, he was placed in a camp together with a group of British officers. They shared a latrine. Stalin’s son habitually left a foul mess. The British officers resented having their latrine smeared with shit, even if it was the shit of the son of the most powerful man in the world. They brought the matter to his attention. He took offense. They brought it to his attention again and again, and tried to make him clean the latrine. He raged, argued, and fought. Finally, he demanded a hearing with the camp commander. He wanted the commander to act as arbiter. But the arrogant German refused to talk about shit. Stalin’s son could not stand the humiliation. Crying out to heaven in the most terrifying of Russian curses, he took a running jump into the electrified barbed-wire fence that surrounded the camp. He hit the target. His body, which would never again make a mess of the Britishers’ latrine, was pinned to the wire.
Yakov Stalin

As Kundera imagines it, Stalin’s son was used to carrying a heavy existential burden upon his shoulders. His father, one of the most powerful men on earth, had rejected him.


In Kundera’s words, “Young Stalin was therefore both the Son of God (because his father was revered like God) and His cast-off”. It is in the context of this sublime and existential drama that Stalin’s son, as Kundera imagines it, was pulled down into a debate about excrement:

Was he, who bore on his shoulders a drama of the highest order (as fallen angel and Son of God), to undergo judgment not for something sublime (in the realm of God and the angels) but for shit? Were the very highest of drama and the very lowest so vertiginously close?... If rejection and privilege are one and the same, if there is no difference between the sublime and the paltry, if the Son of God can undergo judgment for shit, then human existence loses its dimensions and becomes unbearably light.

As the body of Stalin’s son was stuck to that fence, in defiance of gravity, it was “lifted by the infinite lightness of a world that [had] lost its dimensions”. As Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg points out, the word that the Midrash uses to describe Pharaoh's "demeaning act"; the word it uses to describe the activity that he wanted nobody see, in Hebrew, is קָלוֹן, which shares its root with the word for lightness. He didn't want anybody to see that he was merely human.

Captain Underpants

But none of us want to expose our humanity. We all seek to hide it. I'm not entirely sure that I approve of my children reading the Captain Underpants series. But I have to admit that I found the following excerpt amusing:

Most adults spend the first few years of a child's life cheerfully discussing pee and poopies, and how important it is to learn to put your pee-pee in the potty like big people do. But once children have mastered the art of toilet training, they are immediately forbidden to even talk about poop, pee, toilets, and other bathroom-related subjects again. Such things are suddenly considered rude and vulgar, and they are no longer rewarded with praise and cookies and juice boxes.

It isn't just Pharaoh who wants to wish his excrement away, and pretend it doesn't happen. It's all of us. And, in fact, Jewish law seems to endorse what I call the poo-taboo.


The Talmud teaches us that we cannot pray opposite feces unless it has been placed in a container. It’s hard to concentrate on the sublime when you’re smelling the foul stench of animal waste. Indeed, the Talmud teaches us that we’re not even allowed to think words of Torah – let alone speak them – whilst we’re on the toilet. It also forbids prayer when a person needs to use the toilet. Maimonides explains this in terms of avoiding distraction during prayer, but a number of commentators argue that it isn’t fitting for us to stand before the King of Kings whilst our insides are full of excrement – and indeed, this would make sense of the Talmud calling such prayer an abomination; there's something disgusting about it.

Milan Kundera

In a forthcoming academic publication, I bring some of these reflections together, and respond to an argument that Milan Kundera levels against religion. Let's call objects that are objectively worthy of disgust, filthy. Kundera's question is this: can God’s creation, before it has been sullied by the free choices of human beings, contain filth?


The problem can be formalised as follows:

  1. Disgust is an appropriate emotional response to certain (perfectly natural) objects.

  2. Disgust can only be an appropriate emotional response to an object if that object is filthy (in my sense of the word).

  3. Therefore, there are some (perfectly natural and yet) filthy objects.

But line 3 is incompatible with theism. Why? Because if theism is true, then we should think that everything in the universe (especially if it has been untouched by the free choices of human beings) is good. Kundera calls this claim, the categorical agreement with being. The categorical agreement with being is a consequence of theism. Line 3 is incompatible with the categorical agreement with being, and so, line 3 is incompatible with theism.


The existence of poo, and any other filthy material – gives rise to an argument for atheism. As I explain in my article, Jewish sources give rise to two very different responses. The first response seeks to place a wedge between theism and the categorical agreement with being; not everything in God's creation is good (or at least, not everything in his creation should be thought of as good); this would render line 3 compatible with theism. The second response seeks to deny premise 2, and thereby undermine line 3. Disgust might be, in some sense appropriate, but that shouldn’t be taken to entail that the objects of our disgust are, in any deep or objective sense, filthy or disgusting. On this second response, there's nothing inherently wrong with excrement. Jewish law ritualises our disgust, but that doesn't mean that God's creation has anything unseemingly within it.

For example, to forbid holy thoughts, as a matter of religious law, whilst on the toilet – which clearly isn’t for hygiene purposes, is actually to enfold one’s sitting on the toilet into the woof and warp of one’s religious life. To recognise the ugliness of feces, and its risk to public hygiene, but to translate that recognition into the language of ritual is precisely to elevate it. It is to refuse to believe that anything is beyond the purview of religion, and sanctification.


Pharaoh wanted to pretend that he didn't defecate. By contrast, we ritualise our defecation. Even if we feel filthy when our bodies contain excrement, we elevate that entire experience by promoting the common-sense pre-prayer voiding of the bowels into a Torah requirement. The Bible says that uncovered feces is unseemly (Deuteronomy 23:15). But perhaps what’s unseemly isn’t the feces, but our failure to cover it. Not because it’s irredeemably disgusting, in any objective sense, but because our failure to cover it is a failure to redeem the disgusting; it’s a failure to first of all register our disgust, and then secondly to elevate it, and to give it significance in the language of ritual.


Pharaoh, on the one hand, cannot imagine that there could be anything holy about our bodily functions. He pretends that he doesn't have them. The followers of Ba'al Pe'or, by contrast, would encourage us to relish the disgusting; to deny or overcome the visceral human response that we have to it. They would, according to the Rabbis, worship their god with feces. A distinctively Jewish response, by contrast, is to recognise our disgust, and to place that disgust into the context of a ritual.

Bathroom Benediction

Let us not forget to mention: after the spiritual silence of the toilet, upon which holy thoughts cannot be thought, there is a benediction to be said upon leaving the toilet; a benediction which praises God for the design and function of the human digestive system. From beginning to end, the toilet experience is embraced, and elevated, by Jewish law.


Everything is godly, with or without our acts of redemption. But part of how we serve God is to redeem in our minds what, to us, seems – at first – ungodly. We do this in the language of ritual; we redeem the world around us; even the parts that elicit disgust. The real work here is psychological rather than metaphysical; since nothing is really, or objectively, disgusting.


Perhaps the most outlandish suggestion of my article is that, if we are designed in the image of God, and if we're really to embrace the categorical agreement with being, then we have to accept that every single bodily function is, in some sense or other, a reflection of something divine. This leads to the radical suggestion that even the lower reaches or our digestive system, are in the image of God. How so?

When we create something, we often start out by saying more than we want to say, laying out lots of ideas, as they rise to our consciousness, and then, at a later stage, we have to be judicious. Part of creating is deciding what we’re happy with, and what we want to change, and to perfect. According to the Rabbis, something similar happens with God's acts of creation.


The Midrash talks of God creating and destroying worlds before creating this one. Another Midrash describes demons as something like cast-offs of God’s creative process. Creation starts with more, and ends with less.


More simply, by giving human beings free will, and allowing some of us to succeed, and to achieve redemption, and allowing others to fail, creation starts with more, and ends with less.


Our bodies embody this insight. To create a human child, the father ejaculates millions of sperm cells; the egg of the mother accepts just one. All of the other cells are spent possibilities, they are, in some sense, refuse. The human body consumes food. It absorbs what it wants to take from the food, and it excretes the rest. In this way, even our excrement is a reflection of something divine. Namely: the process of creation which starts with more and ends with less.


With this background, we can better appreciate the levels of irony inherent in our Midrash about Pharaoh. Moses and Aaron catch him red-handed as he exists the toilet. And they confront him with the word of God. But he cannot heed the word of God because he takes himself to be a god; and so he hides the fact that he defecates. But, in living a life that's so desperately unredeemed, pretending to be a god who doesn't defecate, he is actually choosing, unbeknownst to him, to become nothing more than God's own refuse.

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