Annoying “Un-Understanding”

Tazria, Leviticus 12:1−13:59

D'Var Torah By: Robert Tornberg

What a difficult portion Tazria is! It looks at issues of purity; birth; and illness of men and women, fabric and skin. Even without touching on leprosy (or whatever skin disease it is) there's plenty to discuss in this parashah!

There's more than enough to explore with childbirth and blood, boy babies and girl babies, quarantine and sin offerings. And the questions abound . . .

  • Why are there 7 days of isolation and 33 days of "blood purification" for birthing boys?
  • Why are there 14 days of isolation and 66 days of blood purification for birthing girls?
  • Do 40 (7 plus 33) and 80 (14 plus 66, or twice 40) have anything to do with all the other 40s in our tradition (for example, the Israelites' 40 years in the wilderness, and the 40 days and nights of rain in Noah's time?)
  • Why is a woman tam'ah, "impure" at all, after creating life in her body?
  • Bringing an olah, "burnt offering" after the period of purification may make sense. But why also a chatat, "sin" (or "purgation") offering?

The questions puzzle and bother! My "un-understanding" annoys!

Our Torah is frequently perplexing. I encounter the Creation story in the first portion of the Book of Genesis, B'reishit, with energy and enthusiasm despite the fact that it is a challenging text. And I approach the account of Revelation at Sinai (Exodus 20) in Parashat Yitro in a similar way. Our text this week demands no less.

How do we examine these questions with all the problems they present for gender scholars?

I turned to the shelf of Jewish feminist literature in our library – commentaries, theology, polemics, and views – for wisdom.

I learned a lot; perhaps, most of all, I understood that the scholars I read had as many – maybe more – questions than I do.

In the late 1990s, Rachel Adler, an important scholar and theologian, wrote an essay on women's purification in which she completely disassociates herself from her essay on the same subject 20 years prior.1 This shows how even great minds struggle with this text!

In The Torah: A Women's Commentary2 we read that common to both the impurity of childbirth and the diagnosis of the illnesses discussed here and elsewhere in Torah " . . . is the Israelite notion that physical conditions can produce a pollution that affects not only the party afflicted but also the sanctuary – the abode of the divine Presence" (p. 637). That's scary stuff. And a paragraph later we read, "The common denominator regarding all the physical conditions that produce impurity is their association with the nexus of life and death." This makes sense, as elsewhere in Torah we learn that touching a corpse also makes one impure and unable to come in contact with holy objects associated with the Temple (Numbers 19:11-22).

But even so, what do these mitzvot tell women and girls about themselves? What do they tell men?

The anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her groundbreaking book, Purity and Danger,argues that boys (and the mothers who gave birth to them) can go out to encounter the world earlier than girls because they are protected by circumcision. Girls (and their mothers as well) need to be sheltered longer since they do not have such a clear mark of the covenant. So, she suggests, that the extra time society (Torah) imposes on a postpartum mother of a girl (and, thus, her daughter) serves a protective function: after all, there are demons everywhere.

What else do these mitzvot tell women and girls about themselves? What do they tell men? And what about the sin (or purgation) offering)?

In her essay in The Torah: A Women's Commentary,4 Beth Alpert Nakhai, an archeologist and text scholar who focuses on Canaanite and Israelite religions, suggests, " . . . the commandment of purification after childbirth is consistent with the priestly insistence that blood contains or represents a life force. The priestly authors of Leviticus believe that blood, . . . is so powerful as a source of life that only purification rituals [that require the dashing of the blood of the sacrificial animal on the altar!] can allow those who come into contact with it to return to the community" (p. 650). To the ancients it seems that blood cancels out blood. That seems a strange notion for us today!

However, these ideas emphasize the minutiae rather than the big picture. In Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,5 Jane Rachel Litman points out that all of Leviticus had a unified purpose, namely the creation of a social order that makes a scary and out-of-control world manageable. She writes, "Trespass of the rules threatens the whole community with anarchy, not only in terms of the societal structure, but throughout the entirety of God's universe" (p. 137). So it doesn't even matter what the rules are. The fact that we have rules makes us feel safe and in control!

In pondering these responses, I think back to all we have read since Simchat Torah.

We spent a beautiful fall watching leaves change colors and hearing intimate, interesting, inspiring, and at times embarrassing stories about our family of origin as they learned to have a relationship with God in B'reishit, Genesis.

We spent the dark and dreary winter being uplifted as we learned tales, the likes of which legends are made. They made us proud – at least some of the time – as we, as a people (bigger than a family) forged a bond with our God in Sh'mot, Exodus.

Now it is almost spring. We are ready to break forth from the long, cold winter. We feel that anything is possible! So, what do we get from Torah? Tazria and all the other ritual rules in Leviticus. Their weight holds us down. It dampens our enthusiasm. It keeps us in check. Does it matter what the rules are? Or do they just make us feel safe when we are, perhaps, ready to abandon all boundaries?

Yet, we continue to wonder about the messages this parashah sends to – and about – girls and women.

  1. Rachel Adler," 'In Your Blood, Live': Re-Visions of a Theology of Purity," in Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life, vol. 2, Debra Orenstein and Jane Rachel Litman, eds. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997), pp. 197-206
  2. Elaine Goodfriend, in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss, eds. (New York: Women of Reform Judaism/URJ Press, 2008), p. 637
  3. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (New York, NY: Routledge, 1966)
  4. Beth Alpert Nakhai, in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss, eds. (New York: Women of Reform Judaism/URJ Press, 2008), p. 650
  5. Jane Rachel Litman, "Themes of Leviticus/Vayikra Rabbah: The Sacred Body of Israel" in Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life, vol. 2, Debra Orenstein and Jane Rachel Litman, eds. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997), pp. 135-146

Robert Tornberg, RJE, is a Jewish educator with nearly forty years of experience in synagogue schools, day schools and as the Education Director of DeLeT at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Currently completing the dissertation for his Ph.D. in educational administration and program evaluation, he plans to develop an independent consulting practice focusing on program evaluation and professional development for Jewish schools, synagogues, and other organizations.

Ritual Moments: Opportunities to Savor Transition

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Greg Litcofsky

In his d'var Torah, Robert Tornberg focuses our attention on the verses regarding childbirth and the laws surrounding a mother's subsequent impurity. We read that upon completion of her period of isolation the Torah commands the new mother to offer a series of sacrifices.

The medieval Spanish commentator, Abravanel teaches that the mother must bring a sacrifice in order that she may "cleave to her Maker."1 In other words, these offerings were not meant to purge the mother of sin, rather they were ritual moments for the new mother to draw close to the Holy One of Blessing and mark her transition from isolation to community.

Today, many of the rituals in which we partake after the birth or adoption of a child focus on the child (b'rit milah, simchat bat, baby naming, pidyon haben, and so on) rather than on the parents. Yet here we have a ritual that belongs wholly to the mother. Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman teaches that ritual "arranges our life into relatively small packages of moments that matter,"2 and this moment matters!

Whether you are becoming a parent for the first or the third time, the transition into parenthood is both joyous and overwhelming all at once, and it is full of these potentially holy moments. The wisdom found here in the Torah is the recognition of the transition that takes place when one becomes a parent. In the parashah it happens after a period of isolation. Today, perhaps it's marked when we leave the hospital with our child for the first time or when we spend the first night at home together as a new family.

Our parashah, in many ways, is about transitions, moving from one phase of life to the next. It reminds us that moments of transition matter, and that if we allow ourselves the time to pause and reflect we can mark them with meaningful rituals. These rituals give us the opportunity to recognize the Divine Presence as we attempt to "cleave to our Maker" and move from one phase of life to the next with focus and meaning. The ritual moment gives the mother a chance to cleave to God as she cleaves to her new child.

  1. Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, vol. 1, translated by Rafael Fisch and Avner Tomaschoff, (Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, n.d.), p. 177
  2. Lawrence A. Hoffman, The Art of Public Prayer: Not for Clergy Only (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 1999), p. 17

Rabbi Greg Litcofsky is the rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston, New Jersey.

Reference Materials

Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 826-838; Revised Edition, pp. 734-745; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 637-656

Originally published: