The first chapter of this double portion, chapter 12 of Leviticus, is perplexing. It seems to stand by itself. Its topic, the condition of a woman who has given birth, does not seem to relate to last week's portion, dealing with permitted and prohibited foodstuffs, and it does not seem to relate to the chapters that follow it, which speak about that peculiar skin eruption called tzaraat. But by placing it as a kind of preface to the chapters on skin eruptions, the Rabbis who arranged the Torah portions seem to be arguing that it does relate to irruptions: it speaks about a natural eruption through the skin—the birth of a baby, compared to an "unnatural," or at least undesired, eruption: the oozing out of fluids. Tzaraat is a substance that is supposed to remain inside the body; it is "unnatural" when it flows out. A baby, on the other hand, is supposed to emerge from the body when its time is ripe. This is a portion, in other words, about boundaries, as Mary Douglas argued long ago in her book Purity and Danger.1 Thus, while Rabbis often dread having to preach about this portion, it is a very suggestive one, and presents, as Professor Douglas has taught us, an image of the human body as symbolic of the body politic of the Israelite people.
As such, it fills in several lacunae in the Torah's presentation of the people of Israel. Where did the people come from? God did not create the people—God created human beings to be able to give birth—for men to "sow seed" and for women to nurture the seed in their bodies until it grows into a viable baby able to emerge into the world. Genesis tells us about this: "Therefore a man shall abandon his father and his mother and cleave to his wife and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24); "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Genesis 3:16). Indeed, in our portion it is the woman who causes the seed of her husband to be implanted in her, the woman, we might say, who arouses her husband to the point of climax and the sowing of seed.
But this section of the parashah includes a controversial statement. Why is a woman to be in a state of impurity (tum'ah) twice as long following the birth of a girl (two weeks) than the birth of a boy (one week)? Sometimes critics have seen this as another example of the Torah's supposed misogynistic mindset. But in recent years exactly the opposite interpretation has taken hold: that is, that tum'ah means not "impurity" in the sense of "uncleanness" but as the liminal state where life and death encounter each other. Childbirth is a fragile time, infant mortality used to be very high. In menstruation, where a woman is also in a state of tum'ah, the outpouring of menstrual blood signifies that a new life was not created. Dr. Rachel Adler2 first espoused this theory of tum'ah many years ago, and it leads to the suggestion that a baby girl, who herself may well give birth in due time, bears a double portion of this life/death encounter. Thus the birth of a baby girl initiates a potential infinite series of births, which over time will create—or sustain—the Jewish people. Again, the human body—in this case the woman and her female baby—is symbolic of the body of the eternal Jewish people.
Perhaps for this reason this passage stresses the care that the people must take to prevent an outbreak of the skin disease tzaraat that could infect the entire people and—in a sense—threaten the fulfillment of God's covenantal promise that we would be as uncountable as the stars in heaven. Because the skin eruption is a death-skirting impurity it is appropriate that the patient be examined by the kohein, as though he or she were an offering being brought to the altar. Indeed, we are given much more detail about how scrupulously the kohein is to examine the human subject than we are told how he would examine a sacrificial animal. If the person is found to be a m'tzora, the person is put in quarantine for seven days—the same amount of time Aaron and his sons were secluded during the period of their consecration (Leviticus 13:4; 8:34-35). This is remarkable: the same procedures are instituted for the most pure, the priests, and the least pure, the m'tzora. And in the second parashah of this double portion (Leviticus 14:14-18) the priest purifies the "healed" m'tzora (the person suffering from tzaraat) in the same fashion as the priests are consecrated—by sprinkling blood on their extremities, as we noted in the comment to Tzav, on Leviticus 8:22-24. Just as the priests become like the altar, on the extremities of which blood is also sprinkled, so the healed m'tzora becomes a living altar as well. Of course it is in the interstices between these extremes—the most pure and the least pure—that the body of Israel dwells. While the non-priest cannot attain to the purity of the kohein (in any case, a status available only to men), men and women are protected from the destructive impurity of tzaraat by the procedures outlined in these two portions, in which the affected person comes as close to the experience of the kohein as a "layperson" is permitted. The ordinary Israelite's vulnerability to tzaraat paradoxically creates a kind of democracy erasing some of the distinctions between kohein and Israelite. The end of Parashat Tazria extends this vulnerability to the possibility of tzaraat in a garment as well.
In non-leap years like this one we read both Tazria and M'tzora together. There is comfort in this pairing: the first portion describes the outbreak and treatment of the disease; the second portion describes the welcoming of the healed victim back into the community. On years when they are read separately, it is as though we are living out the victim's condition—for a whole week, if we live in communities reading the Torah on Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat, the victim's weeklong isolation becomes part of our life as well, until the person is welcomed back when it is time to read the new portion. In years like this one, by condensing the diagnosis, treatment, and welcome into the same week, we are reminded of the hopefulness that is so much a part of the Jewish people's approach to life; though we may begin a period of time with bad news, there is treatment and transcendence waiting at the end. What a wonderful portion to preach about!
Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London/New York: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1966)
Rachel Adler, "Tum'ah and Tohorah: Ends and Beginnings," Response Magazine, Vol. VII No. 2, Summer 1973
Rabbi Richard N. Levy recently retired as Rabbi of the Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR, where he continues to teach in the fields of liturgy, spiritual growth, and social justice. He is a past Director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the campus and a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.