Babies as Spiritual Giants: Tazria/HaHodesh/RH 5776

Preemie Newborn babies are miraculous to see, and even more remarkable to hold. To let their tiny fingers curl around your pinkie and breathe in their new-to-the-world fragrance is divine, but sometimes this pleasure isn’t possible. A few days ago I met a newborn so small that even his parents can’t hold him—at just 2 lbs, this premature infant in the NICU is tethered to life support, receiving remarkably skilled and compassionate care. I pray that this boy and his twin sister, also premature but in better health, will grow strong and secure in the weeks and months ahead. Standing there by the incubator and watching this tiny, tiny person, not much bigger than a yam, I felt deeply humbled by the mysteries of physical existence. Spiritual existence is also a mystery, but first there is the guf, and to look at a few ounces of person fighting for his place in the land of the living is to remember that all of our automatic systems—respiration, circulation, digestion and more—are an enormous miracle that we are challenged to appreciate. Sure, we can stop to notice our breathing for a few minutes, but then our attention shifts. Fortunately our body’s attention does not shift. Even when we sleep, our hearts beat on, our breath remains, and our souls stay tethered to these remarkable bodies, so that we might continue to live, to grow, to love, to give.

It is with this consciousness of the fragility and preciousness of life that I enter the realm of Parshat Tazria. The new mother is quarantined for a week, just as at menstruation. In both cases one senses the Torah’s desire to give her time to heal before facing the pressures of public life. But then she is invited to the epicenter of holiness—the sacred precincts of the tabernacle/temple, in order to offer two sacrifices—an offering of ascent (קרבן עולה), and an offering of purification (קרבן חטאת). In many ways this story is one of appreciation for the physical and spiritual power of women—they bring life into the world, and they are invited to connect this wonder with the spiritual life of the sanctuary, offering their own double sacrifice. The purification offering acknowledges the danger of labor and delivery, as well as the cultic contamination caused by her bleeding; the offering of ascent (olah) is not explained, but “it may be an expression of thanks or a required gesture of obeisance” (Jewish Study Bible, p.234).  Jacob Milgrom finds rabbinic support for the use of the “olah” as a thanksgiving offering in t.Parah 1:1 and b.Zevahim 7b. 

In any event, the new mother possesses spiritual power, both positive and negative, and her presentation of altar gifts may be read as a narrative of her agency and empowerment.  However, this affirming narrative is undermined by many of our rabbinic commentaries, some of which are inclined to blame the mother at the very moment of her greatest vulnerability.

Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai’s students ask their teacher why a woman brings a “sin” (better: purification) offering after childbirth. He replies that it is because at the time that she crouches to deliver, she makes an oath never to conceive again. Such an oath is considered sinful (though interestingly, it is men, and not women, who are commanded to procreate), but if she retracts her oath then she can be forgiven by means of sacrifice. Why then is the period of impurity doubled for girls? In one of the most misogynistic texts of our tradition, the editor explains that “everyone rejoices” at the birth of a boy, so the mother feels better and retracts her oath, while it takes longer for her to get over the general disappointment that greets a baby girl. Only after two weeks of bonding does she retract her oath and then qualify for purification. (Bavli Niddah 31b). This explanation is repeated by the commentaries. Kli Yakar adds the possibility that this offering is meant to atone for the original sin of Eve—a rare example of rabbinic endorsement of this doctrine. Seforno gives a more neutral explanation—the new mother is initially focused entirely on matters of the body, but after this break, she is able to return to spiritual matters in the temple. 

Still, the weight of rabbinic interpretation is to blame the mother and to diminish the celebration of the birth of a girl. While there is no reason to doubt the resonance of this assertion for many ancient and even contemporary cultures, is remains painful and infuriating. It runs contrary to the experience of the proud parents of girls everywhere. We ought to name this as a “text of terror,” to use Phyllis Trible’s term and to disassociate ourselves from this as a true or even useful explanation. Life is life, and the sex of the child is secondary. Awareness of ancient bias is part of historical consciousness but it has no place in our own aspirations for an egalitarian religious culture. What then are we to do with the Torah’s distinction based on the sex of the child?

There are numerous more neutral theories about why the waiting period is doubled for a baby girl—the most plausible to me is that the baby girl’s own fertility (and possibly even vaginal blood) is being recognized, along with the greater toll that childbirth takes on women rather than men. I don’t claim this to be the “p’shat” or historical meaning—Milgrom offers multiple suggestions for the differential, which is also found in other religious cultures from the Hittites to India. He agrees with Noth’s refutation of the theory that the differential indicates the cultic inferiority of women. After all, “a corpse defiles more than a dead pig, the latter more than a dead frog.” (Leviticus 1-16, p.751). Although mention of the brit milah rite seems to be placed in v.3 merely by association, perhaps it is more than that. The circumcision may short-cut the period of impurity—accomplishing surgically what time alone can do for a girl. Or perhaps the Torah exercises leniency in order to allow the mother to attend her own son’s brit milah in purity. 

Reading this text with contemporary consciousness gives us an opportunity to reconsider the social significance of sexual differences, and the more fluid understanding of gender that has recently risen in our consciousness. The assignment of gender at birth is increasingly understood to be provisional. This looks like a boy or a girl, but do we really know? I have been thinking about this issue in both halakhic and pastoral terms, and realize that I am still at a very early point of comprehension. I am trying to understand the questions, and am far from understanding answers. I do not think anyone would suggest that there is no significance to physical distinctions. Mind-body dualism is not a dominant aspect of Jewish thought, but surely it is present throughout our tradition. Our bodies matter greatly—Leviticus makes this clear. Yet Leviticus also encourages us to push back against the concept of physical determinism. Given that our bodies differ one from the other, and that all of us have moments of strength and moments of weakness—given that the one constant of physical existence is change—how are we to make sense of our embodied lives?

This time of year when the book of Leviticus focuses on physical life, even as the festival of Passover is the most physical of our festivals—requiring actions of eating in order to experience redemption—is an indication of Judaism’s greatest teaching. The goal of religious life is not to get to heaven. The goal of religious life is to invest these bodies of ours with spiritual significance. It requires us to be mindful of how we move in the world, how we treat our bodies and those of others around us. As the great Hasidic writer Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev is said to have said, “my neighbor’s physical needs are my spiritual needs.” Byron Sherwin z”l wrote regarding the Seer of Lublin, “It is the task of the tzaddik to lift the people from materiality toward God, while simultaneously helping to ensure that the people are not so crippled by poverty that they are unable to attend to the religious duties that are aimed at achieving communion with God” (Sparks Amidst the Ashes, p.27). 

What is true regarding poverty is true regarding all variables of physical existence. Each person in each body has the capacity to connect their physical existence to the divine realm. The sacred task of religious leadership is to expand the realm of spiritual existence so that all are able to find meaning in their daily life and to contribute to the lives of those around them. This combination of physical and spiritual engagement is what we call Judaism, and it is with this awareness that we can appreciate the strange realm of Leviticus 12. New life brings new challenges and new blessings—on Shabbat Tazria we embrace this reality and commit ourselves to celebrate the varieties of physical existence and to empower others to develop their own spiritual strengths.

ויקרא פרק יב, אח

(א) וַיְדַבֵּר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: (ב) דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ וְיָלְדָה זָכָר וְטָמְאָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כִּימֵי נִדַּת דְּוֹתָהּ תִּטְמָא: (ג) וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ: (ד) וּשְׁלֹשִׁים יוֹם וּשְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים תֵּשֵׁב בִּדְמֵי טָהֳרָה בְּכָל קֹדֶשׁ לֹא תִגָּע וְאֶל הַמִּקְדָּשׁ לֹא תָבֹא עַד מְלֹאת יְמֵי טָהֳרָהּ: (ה) וְאִם נְקֵבָה תֵלֵד וְטָמְאָה שְׁבֻעַיִם כְּנִדָּתָהּ וְשִׁשִּׁים יוֹם וְשֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תֵּשֵׁב עַל דְּמֵי טָהֳרָה: (ו) וּבִמְלֹאת יְמֵי טָהֳרָהּ לְבֵן אוֹ לְבַת תָּבִיא כֶּבֶשׂ בֶּן שְׁנָתוֹ לְעֹלָה וּבֶן יוֹנָה אוֹ תֹר לְחַטָּאת אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד אֶל הַכֹּהֵן: (ז) וְהִקְרִיבוֹ לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק וְכִפֶּר עָלֶיהָ וְטָהֲרָה מִמְּקֹר דָּמֶיהָ זֹאת תּוֹרַת הַיֹּלֶדֶת לַזָּכָר אוֹ לַנְּקֵבָה: (ח) וְאִם לֹא תִמְצָא יָדָהּ דֵּי שֶׂה וְלָקְחָה שְׁתֵּי תֹרִים אוֹ שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי יוֹנָה אֶחָד לְעֹלָה וְאֶחָד לְחַטָּאת וְכִפֶּר עָלֶיהָ הַכֹּהֵן וְטָהֵרָה:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת נדה דף לא עמוד ב

שאלו תלמידיו את רבי שמעון בן יוחי: מפני מה אמרה תורה יולדת מביאה קרבן? אמר להן: בשעה שכורעת לילד קופצת ונשבעת שלא תזקק לבעלה, לפיכך אמרה תורה תביא קרבן. מתקיף לה רב יוסף: והא מזידה היא, ובחרטה תליא מילתא! ועוד, קרבן שבועה בעי איתויי! ומפני מה אמרה תורה זכר לשבעה ונקבה לארבעה עשר? זכר שהכל שמחים בו מתחרטת לשבעה, נקבה שהכל עצבים בה מתחרטת לארבעה עשר.

ספורנו ויקרא פרשת תזריע פרק יב פסוק ח

(ח) וכפר עליה. כי כל ימי זוב טומאתה תהיינה כל מחשבותיה פונות אל עסקי כלי הזרע ופעולתם, ולא תהיה ראויה למקדש וקדשיו עד שתביא כפרתה ותפנה אל הקודש:

כלי יקר ויקרא פרק יב

(ח) וכפר עליה הכהן וטהרה. כפרה זו היא על עוון הקדום של חוה שגרם לה צער הלידה ומתוך צערה אולי הטיחה דברים כלפי מעלה לאמר אם כן למה זה אנכי הרה עמל ויסורין. וראיה ממה שאמר וטהרה ממקור דמיה מן אותו מקור נפתח לחטאת ולנדה כי הוא גרם לה כל זה והיינו עוון חוה כאמור, גם לשון דמיה כולל העוון מלשון דמיהם בם (ויקרא כ כז):

ויש אומרים שכפרה זו על השבועה שנשבעת שלא להזדקק לבעלה משעה שכורעת לילד (נדה לא ב). לפיכך היולדת זכר מתחרטת מהרה מרוב שמחה על כן כפרתה ממהרת לבוא אבל היולדת נקבה מצטערת ואינה מתחרטת מהרה על כן כפרתה מתאחרת. ואף על פי שאין השבועה חלה כלל דאם לא כן איך מותרת לבעלה אחר שבעה לזכר ושבועים לנקבה בלא כפרה שהרי הבאת הכפרה אחר ארבעים לזכר ושמונים לנקבה, כי באמת אין כאן שבועה כי אין הדבר בידה שהרי היא משועבדת לבעלה ודומה למי שנשבע שאינו רוצה לפרוע חובו, מכל מקום צריכה כפרה על שהוציאה מפיה השבועה והרהרה בלבה לקרוא תגר על המתוך צערה על כן קרבנה חטאת לכפר על חטא המעשה כי עקימת שפתיה חשוב כמעשה, ועולה על הרהור הלב. ויש כדמות רמז לזה ממה שאמר וטהרה ממקור דמיה שאם נשבעה בכעסה ודאי רתיחת הדמים היה סיבה לזה כי המה סיבה לכל כעס וכל כעס מקורו מן הדמים ורתיחתן על כן אמר וטהרה ממקור דמיה: