Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Tazria

Parashat Tazria

March 31, 2011

By Sandy Horowitz

Wrestling with Ritual

In his book Sacred Fragments, author Neil Gillman discusses the issue of ritual in Judaism. He addresses the distinction between laws having to do with relationships among human beings, as compared with commandments to perform ritual acts whose function was for the sake of God.  The commandments of human relationship are ones we probably would come to ourselves, whereas the laws of ritual would only have come about by divine decree.

Today, we live in a culture that values interpersonal relationship, in which the former tends to make more sense to us, whereas the latter may be more difficult for some of us to understand or accept.

How we view this week’s Torah portion probably depends a lot on our relationship with Jewish ritual, and what we do with our modern sensibilities.  The first eight verses, in which we read about the rituals following childbirth, are a case in point.

“When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity (Lev. 12:2)… If she bears a female, she shall be unclean two weeks (Lev.12:5)”   This is uncomfortable stuff.  Why the distinction between male and female?  And why is a woman after childbirth considered to be unclean?  Why must she remain, as described, isolated in a state of “blood-purification”?

Going on: “On the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest… a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering (Lev. 12:6)… The priest shall make expiation on her behalf, and she shall be clean (Lev 12:8)”.

Again the questions and the discomfort: “sin offering?”  Is childbirth a sin?   Without discounting these questions, we can still try to take a broader view, which may or may not have been what was originally intended but can nevertheless help us to find meaning in the text.

The first citation contains specific instructions which require a woman to remain isolated following childbirth.  How many of us were still trying to deal with issues of household, community and even work, in those first few days and weeks after our children were born?  Wouldn’t it have been a gift, to be allowed as our ancestral mothers were, to remain fully focused on taking care of ourselves and our newborn, without external distractions and demands?  The ritually-prescribed isolation following childbirth may have been written with very real concerns regarding impurity which aren’t easy for us to understand today.  But even while struggling with those issues, we can still appreciate the value of the ritual of separation following childbirth.

As for the verses regarding sacrificial offerings: again, we need to try and put aside our discomfort with issues of sin and sacrifice, in order to consider the value of ritual itself.

Numerous Jewish rituals address the theme of separation and return.  We begin Shabbat by lighting candles and reciting Kiddush, and then we re-join the week with the ritual of Havdalah.  We observe Yom Kippur by separating from the daily world, fasting and praying, and when the day ends we return to our daily lives.

Here we see another ritual on the theme: the return to society following the separation brought on by childbirth is marked by bringing a sacrifice to the Temple. One can interpret this act of sacrifice as being a ritually-directed recognition of the mother’s experience, and the mother’s return to the community.

In our modern, child-centered culture, when it comes to the parent-newborn relationship, societal focus is primarily on the baby.  From the time the child is born, his or her needs necessarily come before that of the mother.  When the mother goes out with her baby and greets neighbors and friends, conversation and interest tend to focus more on the baby than on the parent.  In this context, there is much to be said for creating a modern-version ritual of return, in which the parent would be recognized and welcomed back into the community.

In the coming weeks we will be preparing for what is probably our most ritually-loaded holiday, that of Passover.  As we continue to struggle with the more difficult aspects of our sacred text, may our joy in celebrating the rituals of Pesah help us to greater understanding and appreciation of the laws of ritual.


Sandy Horowitz is a cantorial student at AJR.