Why Blood Is the Stuff of Life

Why Blood Is the Stuff of Life

At Congregation Kneseth Israel, in Elgin, IL, we spent the year studying Torah through the lens of science. Every week we sent an email to our families with a summary of the Torah portion of the week, together with four questions that we called “Table Topics,” a lab based on something in the portion, a song and an act of kindness. These were aimed at families with kids of all ages in our Torah School, although the email went to every member and was also posted on the rabbi’s blog, The Energizer Rabbi. What follows is an expanded version of one of these summaries.

This week, in parashat Kedoshim, we read a section of the Torah that is called “The Holiness Code.” It is a radical way of creating a society, and it repeats as a refrain, “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am Holy.” What does holiness mean? It means to be set apart. The root of this verb in Hebrew is k-d-sh. We use that verb root for Kiddush where we set time apart for Shabbat and make it holy. We use it for Kaddish, the prayer that sets parts of the service apart almost like a punctuation mark, and makes each section holy, even life itself. We use it for Kiddushin – marriage – where you and your partner are set apart and made holy, one for the other.

This portion gives us a list of things to do to be holy. We are to revere our mothers and our fathers. We are to observe Shabbat. We are to have just weights and measures. We are not to withhold the wages of a laborer or put a stumbling block before the blind or curse the deaf.  We are to leave the corners of our fields for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the most marginalized amongst us. We are not to hold a grudge.

And centrally, we are “to love our neighbors as ourselves.” (Lev 19:18)

Another way to demonstrate that love is contained in this same Torah portion is that it explicitly tells us to “not stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds.” (Lev. 19: 16)

Indeed, there is lots in the Book of Leviticus about blood (and other bodily fluids). Many people, then as now, were afraid of blood. Somehow, coming in contact with blood, the life force, was scary. It would render someone “impure” or “unclean”, not ready to perform ritual acts. They would have to remain outside the camp until they were purified in some way.

Mary Douglas wrote a powerful book, Purity and Danger, about the anthropology of what she terms “pollution,” which includes blood. There is an entire chapter on Leviticus, including her understanding of kashrut laws around blood and other bodily emissions. All of these were seen as somehow taboo, something that should not be touched. They pollute the person who comes into contact with them, making them unfit to be part of the group or ready for ritual service. 

Blood as a life force can be scary. It can ebb and flow. We must not touch blood. We must not eat anything containing blood. Outside of the body, it is somehow out-of-place and dangerous. We see this in the kashrut laws and in the rules surrounding a menstruating woman. We see the fear with the first of the ten plagues – turning the river Nile into blood. 

Yet our verse, “do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds,” suggests another way. That when someone is bleeding, you need to touch them. You need to stop the bleeding. There are several ways congregations can live out that verse. You can make sure that every institution has bleeding control kits, and the training that goes with them. They are often called “Stop the Bleed” kits, designed to be used in a critical situations to help stop traumatic, life-threatening bleeding. 

Another way is to host or participate in a blood drive. Blood donations are necessary for victims of car crashes, gunshot wounds, clotting diseases, open heart surgery, and a variety of blood cancers, including lymphoma, leukemia and myeloma.

Here is where science meets Torah. Rather than seeing blood as a source of contamination, it is now routinely screened. Donors are asked a series of questions to make sure that they are in good health and free of any disease that could be transmitted by blood transfusion. Blood is tested to make sure that the person is not anemic and for which blood type they are. After donation, the blood is tested for hepatitis B and C, as well as HIV and other diseases such as Zika and West Nile Virus.  All of that testing is science at work. Here are just some of the things that Versiti, whom we partner with, are working on in terms of blood research, and there are many more:

  • Producing monoclonal antibodies (a COVID treatment currently being researched for people who cannot receive a vaccine)
  • Research into thrombosis
  • Automated DNA sequencing
  • The genetic study of viruses

The blood research leads to more healing of some of the world’s most difficult diseases to treat. This leads to more hope and healing, and less fear of blood as a contaminant.

Usually, kids cannot be blood donors until they are 16 and then with guardian permission and if they meet height and weight requirements. However, kids can help at blood drives by being a welcoming presence and helping with snacks, signage, thank you notes and more. In that way, you live out the idea of not standing idly by while your neighbor bleeds. It also is a way to illustrate, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Blood is vital, as the Blood Science Foundation explains. “Blood transports oxygen to our lungs and tissues, carries antibodies to fight infections, and helps to filter toxins from our bodies. It’s essential—not only to our individual health and well-being—but to our entire healthcare system.

Only 37% of Americans are eligible to donate blood. Find some way to donate blood or work at a blood drive. It will be one way to make the words of this portion, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds,” even more real, concrete and relevant.

In our tradition, we are taught in the Talmud that to save one life is to save the whole world. (Sanhedrin 37a) The donation of just one pint of blood can save three lives. Don’t be afraid. Go donate. 

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein is Rabbi at Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL, where she worked on developing a kids’ curriculum called “Parsha and Planets on the Prairie”).


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