Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59
Tazria scares me. It always has.
It is the rare person indeed who gets excited at the prospect of reading about oozy or bloody bodily emissions, but that is the topic of our parasha this week. Even more, the opening verses appear to be blatantly misogynist, adding another layer of deep discomfort to our contemporary sensibilities. Yet, as Rabbi Ron Segal asks, “when have we ever benefited from avoiding difficult challenges?” So, let’s look at the opening verses, unfiltered:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean (tamah) seven days; shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood purification (d’mei taharah) for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification (taharah) has been completed. If she bears a female, she shall be unclean (tamah) two weeks as during her menstruation and she shall remain in a state of blood purification (d’mei taharah) for sixty-six days.” [Lev. 12:1-5]
This is what the Torah teaches?
How could childbirth, the closest a human being can ever get to imitating the creative nature of God, result in a condition of ritual impurity or uncleanliness in the mother? And why is the state of impurity/uncleanliness twice as long when the mother gives birth to a girl rather than a boy?
Part of our problem, but only part of it, is a result of translation. Tazria is an exploration of two states of being which in Hebrew are called tumah and taharah. Translating these words into English is challenging. Tumah is commonly understood to mean “impurity,” “defilement,” or “unclean.” Taharah is seen as the opposite. Read this way, the time after childbirth seems like a sentence, doubled for a daughter.
However, there is another way to translate these words as they relate to the sacrificial cult. Taharah is the state of being which permits one to enter the Temple precincts. Tumah is the state of being which does not permit one to enter the Temple precincts. Why does this distinction of one’s state of being matter? First, we must understand that there is a halakhic (Jewish legal) principle that one who is engaged in one mitzvah is exempt from the others. In some cases the first mitzvah is considered so important that one is prohibited from the performance of the others until the primary task is completed.
Judith Antonelli takes this idea and applies it in the most startling way, inferring that the mother bonding with her newborn is a mitzvah which takes precedence over the rest. She notes that there have been studies which demonstrate that mothers pay more attention to baby boys than to baby girls, picking them up and talking to them more, and breastfeeding them longer. While this could just be an example of baby boys being more aggressive and getting more attention, she doesn’t stop there. She writes:
“Perhaps, however, it is one of the more insidious results of male supremacy — that women themselves internalize the value of male superiority and end up perpetuating it, often quite unconsciously, through different ways of relating to sons and daughters. (Similar research has also demonstrated that favoritism is shown to boys by teachers in classrooms and nurses in maternity wards.)”
This leads her to conclude that the passage does not devalue girls but does the opposite. To counteract our pre-existing cultural gender bias, the mother is given twice as much time to bond with newborn daughters than sons, because they need it. So important, so holy is this time of maternal bonding, that all other ritual obligations are removed – even going to the Temple to commune with God. Seen in this way the tumah following childbirth is not a punishment, but a sacred privilege.
For what could possibly be more important than the well-being of our children?
 Judith S. Antonelli, “Postpartum Peace,” in In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah (Landham, MD: Jason Aronson Press, 1995): 268.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras