This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, deals with the topics of bodily emissions and skin diseases. Terrific. Tazria has a reputation for being the ‘booby prize’ among Bar/Bat Mitzvah students newly assigned their portions. “Your Torah portion is about leprosy” or “your Torah portion is about menstruation” is not something a 12-year-old wants to hear.
But let’s turn this around and look at it another way…
Tazria begins with a discussion of a woman’s condition immediately following childbirth. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: … When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be tamei…. She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days… If she bears a female, she shall be tamei two weeks… and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days…” [Leviticus 12:1-5]
Upon first glance, this seems to imply that childbirth causes contamination, and that bearing a daughter causes a woman to be twice as contaminated as bearing a son. Tamei and tahor, after all, are commonly translated as the state of being unclean and clean. I find this notion offensive, as do many modern Jews. Is there a more palatable interpretation?
Rachel Adler writes: ‘Tumah is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality. It is the going down into darkness. Taharah is … the reentry into light. Tumah … is simply part of the human cycle. To be tameh is not wrong or bad… Birth leaves a mother tamei for a while, elated and exhausted and spiritually shell-shocked.’ (Rachel Adler, “Tumah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings,” in The Jewish Woman, ed. Elizabeth Koltun [New York: Schoken Books, 1990])
I think most mothers would agree that childbirth and the time after giving birth are overwhelming. One is completely absorbed in bringing new life into the world, to the exclusion of all else. The idea of being spiritually shell-shocked for a time after giving birth, and then returning to a state of normalcy, offers an understanding of the concepts of tamei and tahor to which modern Jews can relate.
The new mother has just been through an overpowering experience, and she needs time to return to an ordinary state of being. Unlike clean vs. unclean, this is not a misogynistic view, but exactly the opposite! Tazria allows women to fully immerse in the altered state of childbirth for a time, without the pressure so common in modern life to get back to ‘normal’ as soon as possible.
I was lucky enough to be home with my babies during their earliest years, and when each of them reached the age of six weeks, I remember being incredulous that our society thought it was a good time for a working mother to return to a full-time work schedule.
I also recall, when my boys were babies, reading of a culture where new mothers were isolated in a tent for the first 30 days after giving birth. In this tent, the other women in the community wholly cared for both the new mother and the new baby. I recall this well, as it made me weep with envy. The culture in question was one our society might view as backward, but this overwhelmed new mom thought theirs was a compassionate, brilliant approach to the altered state in which new parents find themselves. I have no doubt that this forced seclusion was a blessing for these women – one that I fervently wished I could have enjoyed when my babies were brand new.
Using the construct of tamei and tahor offered by Rachel Adler, I would object not to the longer waiting period after birthing a girl, but to the shorter waiting period after birthing a boy! The traditional explanation for this discrepancy is that the girl baby’s potential to birth life in the future doubles the waiting time. This is not a penalty but a reward for birthing a girl, in my opinion.
Tamei, in this view, is a good thing. All new parents should be so lucky.