Torah from around the world #60

by Rabbi Mark Goldsmith,

Alyth – North Western Reform Synagogue

, London, UK

The birth of a child is always an amazing thing – no matter that children have been born in huge numbers since time immemorial – it is still a little miracle every time a child is born.  In a Midrash interpreting our Torah portion, Tazria, Rabbi Levi compared the miracle of childbirth to giving someone a silver coin and having the person return with a block of gold nine months later.  No investment provides higher interest!

The Midrash was trying to explain why something as natural as childbirth should give rise to the sacrifices of thanksgiving and purity that a mother was required, by our Torah portion, to make after the birth of a child.  The Rabbis gave many and various examples of the miracles of pregnancy itself which precede the childbirth and which are worthy of thanksgiving themselves.  They show a marvellous medical naïveté – but are also an expression of the wonder of the whole process.

Rabbi Abba Bar Kahana said that it is a miracle worthy of thanksgiving that, whilst all other animals carry their unborn babies in a horizontal position – human mothers walk upright and yet the baby doesn’t fall out!

Rabbi Eleazar said that it is a miracle worthy of thanksgiving that no human being could exist if he lived all the time at the temperatures inside the body (which according to his knowledge was at boiling point), yet the foetus can thrive and grow into a baby at these temperatures.

Rabbi Aibu concluded this section (Leviticus Rabbah 14:2-4) by saying that it is a miracle worthy of thanksgiving that however horrible a new born baby looks (and his language here is particularly strong) everybody rushes to embrace it!

In our sedra this Shabbat about the rites surrounding the birth of a child – the mother was held to be impure for a period after the birth of the child.   This impurity was twice as long for a girl as for a boy. Why the difference?

The reason was not explained in our portion, and the biblical commentators in the middle ages tried to explain: Ibn Ezra said it was because a boy foetus became essentially formed into the shape of a baby in half the time of a girl foetus, and Ramban said that it was because the matter that girls are made from took twice as long to leave the mothers body as that from which boys are made.

Modern commentators suggest that when this portion was redacted the longer time may have been because the girl possessed a body which would itself have the handicaps of impurity that her mother had.

Where did these ideas of impurity come from? When you look at the lack of understanding of the mechanics of childbirth that was displayed in the Midrashim and by our commentators, at the taboos surrounding the time of childbirth that existed in all the cultures surrounding that of our ancestors and especially at the type of offering that was asked for to render the woman pure again, it becomes clear that the idea of impurity after childbirth was a way of dealing with something that was not understood.

The offering that the woman was to bring was a sin offering – after she has handed this to the priest and it has been sacrificed she was pure again and allowed to enter the Sanctuary.

We shouldn’t get too concerned about the word “sin” offering.  This meant an offering which a person would bring to the Temple to atone for doing something wrong without having intended to do so.  Also the word used for Sin here is the word


, which literally means “to miss the target.”  What target has a woman missed by giving birth?

The Talmud (Niddah 31b) suggests that while giving birth she might have vowed that she would never let her husband come near her again!  I’m sure that they were being humorous.  But to the compositors of the law it was a target important enough for her to require purification.  Purification meant that the person who was impure had to be kept separate until the impurity had passed.    Our Torah portion also tells us that menstruation (


in Hebrew) required the same separation.  This separation is still practised among many Orthodox Jews and comes to an end with a ritual cleansing in the


ritual bath.

The confusion of our ancestors as to what was actually happening in pregnancy and childbirth meant that they turned it into something for which separation was required. The sin offering was not for the baby but because something had happened to the mother that could not be fully understood.  If it could not be understood then maybe it had given rise to an inadvertent sin therefore a sin offering was required.

This would all just be unfortunate anthropological sociology if the effect of it were not very far reaching.  There are no sin offerings today in Judaism – just a service of thanksgiving after childbirth which parallels the mothers’ coming to the priest of the sanctuary.  There are however impurity laws in Orthodox Judaism in which the natural functions of a woman’s body are made the subject of a need for the ritual bath and are made a handicap which stops her from participating in the service of the synagogue or handling the ritual objects such as the Torah scroll all her life.

Progressive Judaism does not accept these obstacles which we see as man made. Progressive Judaism suggests that God, who is not confused about childbirth, does not need them nor want them.  Thus Progressive Judaism encourages all women to take an active part in the religious life of their community.

For the last forty years, and more if Rabbi Regina Jonas had not been murdered by the Nazis, our Judaism has benefited from the work of many women Rabbis – ordained on the same basis as men – and there is no distinction whatever in the role of men and women in any aspect of religious practice. We do not need to have this distinction as  we do not see women as inherently capable of impurity.  The few Reform Synagogues which still cling to gender inequality have almost completed modifying their practices.

The sin offering mentioned in our portion ceased to be required when the Temple was destroyed.  The laws of impurity were rejected as stemming from invalid taboos by the earliest Reform Jews.  In this generation let us finally put to rest all manifestations of gender inequality that arose from ignorance and let us continue to ensure that our Synagogues really do offer full participation in all aspects of Jewish practice to all of our members.

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