Parashat Tazria – Shabbat Hahodesh 5782

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Tazria – Shabbat Hahodesh
By Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12)

I watched with great interest the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings this past week regarding Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to be an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. This interest is not generated solely by my background and interest in law, nor is my concern limited to the state of our country and the on-going challenges to our democracy. As Jews we (and I) are keenly aware of the importance of Halakhah; how our rule of law and a system of justly administered laws contributes to our sense of community and Jewish unity. As Jews we also know that we have thrived when governed by democratically principled governments and we have painful memories of being targets of persecution under authoritarian regimes.

My interest in the hearings for Judge Brown Jackson was primarily centered around the historic moment; the first Black Woman to be nominated to the highest court in the land. How would she approach the moment, and how would she be treated in the moment. While I have strong opinions as to both of the aforementioned concerns (full disclosure, I’m on the executive committee of the Missouri Branch of the NAACP), as to a discussion of this week’s Parashah, rather than opine on the hearings I look to broaden the perspective beyond just last week’s current events. How are women treated in a patriarchal society, and the ethical shortcomings of that patriarchy.  (Leaving aside an important discussion of race and racism in the hearings for another day.)

In Parashat Tazria we read about the sin offering and burnt offering required of women post childbirth in order to regain the status of ritual purity. (Leviticus 12:6) As Nehama Leibowitz states, “[t]he laws of purity and impurity elude our grasp. The impurity of the mother recorded in the beginning of the Parashah is particularly perplexing…Why should a mother be declared ‘unclean’ for fulfilling a Divinely-ordained mission…” (Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra/Leviticus, at pp. 176-177).

The Talmud provides the following explanation: “The disciples of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai asked him. For what reason does the Torah say [that] a woman who has given birth brings a [sin] offering? He answered, when she crouches to give birth, she bursts out and swears, [due to the intense pain, that] she will not copulate with her husband [again]. Therefore, the Torah said [that she must] bring a [sin] offering, [since she will probably violate this oath].” (Talmud Bavli, Niddah 31b) This explanation seems to connote both an assumption of weakness on the part of women and an imbalance as to who carries responsibility for intimacy within the relationship.

Nehama Leibowitz finally addresses her own questions/concerns. “The new life within her [the mother] made her deeply conscious of the greatness of the Creator, as also of her insignificance as ‘dust and ashes’ and impurity. Hence the need for a sin-offering.” (Leibowitz at p. 181).  It is important to note here that Leibowitz also describes man as insignificant before G-d. (Ibid. at p. 179) While I am more comfortable with this explanation for requiring the mother to make a sin offering it still leaves one to wonder why the same offering was not required of the father as he is also insignificant before G-d. For me this is a question for which I do not have a ready answer.

There are other perspectives on the character of women in Jewish history wherein women have risen above the moral weakness of men. In the instance of the golden calf, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin references a Midrash wherein the women refused to offer their gold and jewelry for the building of the golden calf – “for such an abomination.” Yet when the time was right they proved themselves generous, for upon Moses’ return and the building of the Tabernacle they gave abundantly of their mirrors and other prized belongings to help make the sacred instruments of the Temple.” (Cardin, The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Jewish Guide to Holidays and Life-Cycle Events, at p. 52) “G-d rewarded the women for their devotion and their generosity by granting them the New Moon as their holiday.” (Ibid.)

As we approach Shabbat Hahodesh this seems particularly apropos. Cardin traces the recent historical development wherein Jewish women reclaimed Rosh Hodesh beginning in the 1970s. “It is a time of caring and connecting, of knowing that they belong. And for some, it is a moment of reconnecting to a tradition that they had thought had no place for them.” (Ibid.)

Circling back to the Judge Brown Jackson hearings it struck me as yet another instance wherein women were expected (and indeed in her case did) rise above the moral weakness of men. I eagerly anticipate the day in which there is true equality in leadership roles, and we fully avail ourselves of all the good women have to offer. (By equality I reference the remark by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in responding to a question as to how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough. She responded, nine.)  It is far past time that we no longer obligate women to be far superior to men to be in positions of leadership that have been historically reserved for men.
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Rabbi Doug Alpert (AJR ’12) is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami-Kansas City’s urban, progressive synagogue. He is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City as well as Missouri Healthcare for All.