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Reconstructing Biblical Views on Impurity Following Childbirth

Tazria is an uncomfortable parsha. Amidst a parsha on leprosy are commandments concerning uncleanliness after childbirth. Even worse, it appears that a woman is twice as defiled if she gives birth to a daughter. Once her period of impurity is over, she goes to the synagogue and makes a sin offering -- a lamb and a dove or, if she is poor, two doves. If the first mitzvah is to be fruitful and multiply, how can childbirth be sinful and impure, requiring the woman to be isolated and then to make a sin offering? And isn't the different treatment for a girl versus a boy further evidence of degrading the role of women?

One way to confront the discomfort is to start from the haftarah to throw light on the themes of the Torah portion. Naaman is a leper, making an obvious connection between the parsha and haftarah. Elisha, the prophet, tells Naaman to dip himself seven times in the Jordan river. Naaman at first refuses but is finally persuaded to. When he emerges his skin is "like a newborn child's" and he praises the one true God.

Here are important connections between the haftarah and Torah portions: lepers, birth - real birth in the Torah and Naaman's rebirth, and confrontation with the divine. There are certainly many ways of reading the differing treatment of birth of male and female children. Certainly, these parshot deal with a patriarchal society. Certainly, there are more than hints of Jewish cultic views towards blood. We see this in the rules of kashrut. Men with bloody emissions are also unclean while ordinary cuts and blood usually not unclean. Worship practices involved lots of blood. Finally, it was believed that if a woman conceived as a result of sex during menses the child would be born with a skin disease. In our parsha, when a boy is born, he is to be circumcised, meaning there is more blood added to that from childbirth. With a circumcision, it comes as well from the male child and must surely affect the mother - child relation. He too is bleeding after childbirth, but it is the only time this will happen in his life. Naaman confronts the divine. In childbirth, the mother confronts the miraculous. Giving birth is similar to being like God - creating life. God needed time to rest after creating life, and why should a human need less - time to rest and perhaps to reconcile with what has been created. This perspective may help explain the differing treatment of girl and boy. When a girl is born, a woman not only creates life but that life is in the creator's image - "b'tzelmo / a." The greater identity and thus greater attachment of mother and daughter means they need even more time to deal with this confrontation with the miraculous. When the woman gives the dove offering to end this period, we have the added symbolism of life - the dove in Noah - and a symbol of one who has been kept away from the synagogue now returning to the nest and rejoining ordinary life.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah