[This is a d’var Torah I wrote 17 years ago. I keep misplacing it when I want to refer to it when this chapter comes up in the Torah reading cycle. So, I place it here for reference. It is in addition to, not in place of, this week’s Torah Portion Humor.]
Sisterhood Shabbat – D’Var Torah/Sermon
Congregation Beth Shalom
Friday, April 11, 1997
Irene G. Plotzker
This week’s Torah portion, Thazria, concerns childbirth and leprosy. Since this is Sisterhood Shabbat, I thought childbirth would be a more palatable topic, as well as a more fruitful one.
This chapter, Leviticus 12, is very short, only eight verses. If a woman gives birth to a boy, she is strictly unclean for seven days; she can’t go to the sanctuary or have relations with her husband, and she makes objects impure by sitting or lying on them. The boy, of course, is circumcised on the eighth day. After the first seven days, she is impure, only with respect to the sanctuary, for an additional thirty-three days. At the end of the whole forty days, she brings a burnt offering and a sin offering to the sanctuary, the priest makes atonement for her, and she is declared “clean.” The process is the same if the baby is a girl, except there is no circumcision and the time is doubled from seven and thirty-three to fourteen and sixty-six, a total of eighty days.
Let us now consider four questions:
¥ Why is the purification time doubled if the baby is female?
¥ Why is the mother separated from the sanctuary for such long times (40 or 80 days)?
¥ Why does the mother bring a sin offering when giving birth is certainly not a sin?
¥ What meaning can this have for us today?
I realize you’re most interested in that last question, but please bear with me.
Concerning the doubling of time for a girl:
¥ Rabbi J. H. Hertz basically gives up and says there is no satisfactory explanation.
¥ You could look at the matter as, why is the purification time when a boy is born so short, rather than, for a girl, so long, and then conclude, as commentator David Hoffman did, that the strictly unclean time ends at a week because of the child’s b’rit milah on the eighth day.
¥ In the Middle Ages, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra rationalized forty versus eighty by deciding that forty days were required for the formation of the male body in the mother’s womb, while eighty were required to form a female. [As an aside, I should note that the ancient and medieval sages had all sorts of interesting ideas concerning conception and prenatal development.]
¥ Other sages, including Nachmanides in the thirteenth century, argued that it takes forty days to form either a male or female in utero, but the mother requires twice as long to recover from the birth of a girl.
¥ Baruch Levine in the JPS Commentary on Leviticus writes that the doubling reflects the daughter’s potential fertility; in bringing forth a daughter, the mother, who bleeds, has produced someone else who will eventually bleed and give birth. This seems to me the most reasonable explanation, though not entirely satisfactory.
Why must the new mother be kept away from the sanctuary, that is, essentially kept away from the community, for such a long time?
Forty days is roughly six weeks, supposedly the length of time for the mother’s body to heal after a normal birth. Levine also points out that ritual purity versus impurity is sometimes used as a parallel for immunity versus susceptibility; that is, someone who is ritually impure is in a vulnerable state of some kind. Since the new mother is in a physically vulnerable state for several weeks, this explains the long, less strict period of impurity, when she is simply unable to go to the sanctuary and eat from the sacrifices. Also, such separation from the sanctuary contrasts with practices of other Near Eastern peoples, who would dramatize the births and unions of their gods as part of their fertility rites. The Israelites, in separating the new mother from the sanctuary, reinforce the idea that birth is very much part of the earthly realm, from which God, who is pure and divine, is distinct and separate.
In another approach, we could just look at the numbers. Taking the forty-day period as the standard, we could say, well, forty is such a nice, symbolic, number: Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai, the Israelites wandered forty years in the desert, and Noah’s ark was rained on for forty days and nights. And in each of these cases, we are dealing with a type of exile or separation. Thus forty was chosen as the standard, which by implication is for the birth of a boy. This was then doubled (for whatever reason) to eighty for a girl. and, therefore, it had to be eighty for a girl.
Why a sin offering?
Here’s one idea that shows up in ancient and medieval commentaries: The laboring woman often swears she’ll never let her husband touch her again and later, after it’s all over, goes back on her word. Obviously, she only swore because of the pain, and, thus, this was not a proper vow. Therefore, she brings a sin offering to atone for this.
Levine’s commentary notes that requiring a sin offering doesn’t mean the woman is at fault, just impure. The sin offering then is to remove this impurity and restore her access to the sanctuary. The burnt offering is then her first act of worship on being restored fully to the community.
Nehama Leibowitz contrasts the purity and holiness of God with the mess and filth associated with birth. She cites a Midrash in which a person admiring a stone column is told that’s nothing compared with the magnificence of the quarry it came from. Similarly, the beautiful wooden beam came from an awe-inspiring forest. Yet the person admiring a handsome man is told he comes from filth and impurity. The new life signifies the purity and greatness of God, while the mess accompanying birth, the dust and ashes of man’s origin and fate.
This brings us to the last question I posed:
What meaning can this have for us today?
In both the original text and the commentaries on this chapter, we find marked ambivalence. This is reflected in the complexity of the definitions of purity and impurity. The baby is ritually clean, and God has commanded that we be fruitful and multiply, and barrenness is regarded as a great sorrow. Yet the mother is considered impure enough to be ritually separated from the community for several weeks and has to bring a sin offering before being re-admitted. In Midrash Rabbah, the rabbis express awe at the miracles of conception, pregnancy, birth, and nursing and also disgust at what one rabbi refers to as nauseating substances that accompany the birth.
So, too, throughout the centuries, have we found ambivalence expressed regarding the nature and role of women in Jewish life. I need not delve into the various rabbinical statements praising or denigrating women, but it seems to me that this issue of purity versus impurity, divinity versus humanity, occurs on a much more basic level. It is independent of any societal structure (e.g., woman as homemaker, man as breadwinner) but instead probes the essential natures of man, woman and God. What is the role of humanity, or earth, opposite the purity and divinity of God?
Today, ambivalence and uncertainty continue to accompany the role of women in the Jewish world, even in egalitarian synagogues like our own. How equal is equal? Should we assume the ritual responsibilities of men, such as wearing tallit and tefilln? Should that be optional because it feels uncomfortable? Why does it feel uncomfortable? If optional for us, shouldn’t it be optional for the men? There exist feelings of both attraction and repulsion toward a woman in an unfamiliar role. This ambivalence usually is not explicitly dealt with; it’s just acknowledged as discomfort, and usually lessens with time, as the unfamiliar becomes less so. But the basic questions raised by Chapter 12 of Leviticus go to the heart of our existence and thus can never be answered, only pondered.