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Parashat Tazri`a-M’tzora

April 23, 2009

By Rabbi David Greenstein

Shabbat is Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of a new month. This is a time
which the overwhelmingly male-centered tradition assigned for celebration of
the place of Jewish women in the community. In the old days women would observe
Rosh Hodesh as a quasi-festival, refraining from unnecessary work and
household chores. In modern times the feminist renewal of Judaism has enhanced
this traditional association of Rosh Hodesh and feminism in many
creative and meaningful ways.

It is in
this context that we read the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Tazri`a-M’tzora.
While the bulk of this double portion deals with the phenomenon of tzara`at,
a surface affliction, commonly but incorrectly translated as leprosy, the start
of the reading deals with childbirth and its purity and ritual effects on the

The Torah
(Lev. 12) states that if a woman gives birth to a male baby she shall be
ritually impure for seven days. On the eighth day the baby shall be circumcised.
Then another thirty-three days (making a total of forty days) of ritual
quarantine follow before the mother is allowed access to the Sanctuary, where
she must offer sacrifices in commemoration of the birth, after which she
resumes her former place in society.

There are
all sorts of questions that these provisions arouse. But none is as salient as
the contrast we find between these details and the regulations that apply to
the birth of a female baby. Here the Torah states that the initial period of impurity
is twice as long, extending to 14 days. Of course there is no eighth day
circumcision ceremony to mark the end of the first time period. But the
question leaps out – why is the time period doubled? And so is the following
period. The quarantine lasts for sixty-six days, making the entire period go
for eighty days duration. Again, why the doubling?

question is not one that has puzzled only modern, egalitarian-minded readers.
We know that over two thousand years ago Jews were struggling to find some
logical answer to it. For example, the Book of Jubilees posits that this
distinction goes back to the creation of Adam and Eve. “In the first week [- of
Creation] Adam was created and also the rib, his wife. And in the second week
He showed her to him. And therefore the commandment was given to observe seven
days for a male, but for a female twice seven days in their impurity.”
(Jubilees 3:8) It goes on to teach that the forty-day and eighty-day periods of
impurity relate to the placement of the first couple in the Garden of Eden.
While the adequacy of this explanation is questionable, it clearly indicates
that people were thinking about the problem. It also indicates that they
concluded that the difference stemmed from the secondary status of women.

A more
noxious explanation was offered by some Biblical commentators. They explained
that the woman is an essential source of impurity, being the one gender who
experiences menstrual bleeding. When she gives birth to a girl, she has become
a double source of impurity, since another female has been brought into the
world. (See, e.g., Kli Yaqar on the Torah text.)

Is it
possible to read this text in a way that acknowledges its problematic treatment
of women and yet rejects such a stance?

We might
begin by remarking that the privileging of male babies over females is not some
ancient attitude that is no longer present today. A recent NY Times report
highlighted the particularly extreme effects of this attitude in Chinese
society. There are now 32 million more Chinese males under the age of 20 than
females. (NY Times, April 10, 2009). This is the effect of choices Chinese
couples make to abort female fetuses before birth or to neglect them and
abandon them after birth. Such a custom has caused terrible loss of life and
will inflict huge problems upon tens of millions of males who will have no
chance to find a life partner.

In light
of this propensity to reject female babies, perhaps we can read a paradoxical
tension in the Torah text. Females are, indeed, subject to secondary treatment
in patriarchal society. The danger that no one will care for a girl baby is too
horribly real. Perhaps the Torah is combating that tendency in its own way. A
male baby is welcomed into the community after a mere week. But the extended
quarantine period for a girl baby, lasting almost three months may have
encouraged a longer bonding process between mother and daughter, a process that
would thwart the social pressure to give up or neglect the child.

“Maimonidean” reading suggests that the Torah was realistic enough to allow for
societal prejudices, while programming within its teachings the seeds for the
overthrow of those prejudices. Perhaps, in this way, we can read the text as
promoting another kind of purification, a purification over time of our own
limited views.


David Greenstein is Rosh Ha-Yeshivah of AJR.