Set Apart (Tazria)

By Reb David

This teaching is in honor of Women’s History Month.

During Women’s History Month, we honor women who stand apart as teachers, mentors and exemplars of spirit. Throughout history, women have stood apart as bearers of life – whether biologically by giving birth, emotionally by nurturing or inspiring another, or intellectually by teaching or bringing new ideas into the world. This week’s Torah portion (Tazria) begins with exactly this theme – setting women apart precisely because they give birth – which invites our focus on the unique role of women in history and community.

Reflecting our ancestors’ deep concern for ritual purity, this week’s Torah portion opens with an instruction about setting women apart from the community after they give birth:

“When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she will be ritually unclean seven days … as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin will be circumcised [to enter him into the Covenant. The mother] will remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days…. If she bears a female, she shall be unclean for two weeks as during menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days” (Lev. 12:2-5).

These ancient words ask challenging questions. Why should women be “unclean” just for giving birth? Why should the “purification” period double in the case of a female child? Do these words smack of discrimination, even misogyny?

Our ancestors understood the power of life and death to be otherworldly, portals of liminality between levels of existence. Any physical contact with this other world, whether in creating life or touching a dead body, brought temporary separation from the community. As Shefa Gold teaches, one who creates new life (whether a new human life, a work of art, or a life-changing idea) “touches the realm between the worlds where ayin (‘nothing’) gives birth to yesh (‘existence’).” Understood this way, maybe our ancestors temporarily separated women who gave birth not as penalty but as a sign of power. Too, maybe our female ancestors observed a period of separation so they could be restored after a transformational liminal experience. Perhaps this week’s Torah portion is the origin of the spiritual retreat for healing and renewal.

If so, then why extend this seclusion period for bearing a daughter? Perhaps the inequality is not that the seclusion period for a daughter is lengthened but that the seclusion period for a son is cut short. For the birth of a male, Jewish tradition established a ceremony (ritual circumcision) that marked the end of a baby boy’s natal period. Lacking such a ritual for baby girls, new mothers got more time in seclusion to bond with their daughters. Today families may have a ceremony of simchat bat, “rejoicing in the daughter,” to welcome a baby girl into the Community of Israel, which may moot this apparent inequality. Families with newborns know that they need time in seclusion to recover, bond and adjust to the change – truths that are powerful and transformative regardless of gender.

We’ve come a long way, and often our way forward has been to include women and learn from them. Throughout history, women have been not only bearers of life but also guides to new modes of being. Shifrah and Puah, the celebrated midwives of Exodus, made Jewish history possible by being the first to defy Pharaoh: only by their heroism were Moses and other Israelite males rescued from death at their birth. Decades later, the prophetess Miriam showed the true meaning of freedom by being the first to pick up a timbrel and dance with joy at her liberation. From the first female Biblical judge (Devorah) to the first female prime minister of Israel (Golda Meir), to the first female leader of a Jewish seminary in all of history (our own Rabbi Shohama), often women have shown us the way.

By their examples and the examples of  life-giving and life-affirming women in our lives, we celebrate and honor our rich legacy of women who give life, sustain life and make life worth living. As did our female ancestors in their day, may we nurture the Life of Spirit, and the Spirit of Life, by allowing ourselves the occasional gift of seclusion from daily routine for healing and spiritual restoration. In that merit, may all of us – women and men alike – be infused with the indwelling aspect of God, Shechinah, in all our journeys.

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