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Tricky Torah: Taharah & Tumah

My rabbi is fond of asserting that there are no "bad" Torah portions. Whether holiness is innate to the text or something that arises through our engagement with it, Jewish life is predicated on the assertion that Torah has value. All of Torah, not just the fun narrative parts. Okay. Fair enough.

Even so, there are portions which are...let's say...trickier to connect with than others. And we're in the middle of one of those portions right now. Tazria-Metzora (in most years, a double-wide Torah portion; this year, divided into two weeks' worth of reading, since this is a leap year and we need to stretch Leviticus a little) centers around what's usually translated as "ritual impurity." Here's how Tazria starts:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be tamei as at the time of her menstrual infirmity...She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is complete. If she bears a female, she shall be tamei two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days... (Leviticus 12:1-5, which begins online here.)

I want to argue that everything in Torah is valuable, but this is a difficult portion. Because the easiest reading of this text says that childbirth is somehow polluting, and that bearing a daughter is twice as polluting as bearing a son, and that's just offensive to me. So what do I do with it?

Well, first I make an effort to speak more precisely. Near as I can tell, the Hebrew words tumah (that's the noun; the adjective is tamei) and taharah (the adjective form is tahor) don't exactly map to "impure" and "pure," or "unclean" and "clean." They're describing states of being, in relation to ritual and holiness, which don't exactly translate. As Rabbi Alana Suskin writes, "tum'ah and tohorah are best understood as contrasting states in which one is a vessel either for the sacred (tohorah) or for the secular or everyday (tum'ah)." So I'm going to refrain from the temptation to translate, because I think this conversation works better when we're constantly reminding ourselves that we're talking about very particular things.

But even if I steer away from loaded English words like "impure," the facts of this stricture are strange to me. After labor, according to this Torah portion, a woman was considered tamei and was forbidden from visiting the Temple or partaking in holy activities (eating meat from a sacrificial offering, e.g.) for a certain number of days and until she made the appropriate offering. And that "certain number of days" was twice as long if the infant was a girl. Using Hebrew terms doesn't change the fact that a girl-baby created an extra-long period of tumah. (I'm using the past tense here because the Torah portion speaks in terms of Temple visitation and sacrifice, an earlier manifestation of Judaism to which I no longer have access. I'm also aware that, for many Jews today, these laws still hold, albeit in new forms modified for, and by, the shift to Rabbinic Judaism.)

Childbirth wasn't the only thing that conferred tumah. Touching a corpse made one tamei. Menstruation and nocturnal emissions made one tamei. I can rationalize linking death, blood, and semen, especially blood and semen that marked a lost possibility for new life, e.g. "wasted" sperm and eggs. But birth? Surely birth is a miracle, a time of encounter with holiness. What about childbirth made it a cause of tumah? And why did the birth of a girl-child make the mother tamei for twice as long as the birth of a boy?

That latter question seems fairly easy to answer if we ignore the first question for a minute. A girl-baby implies the inherent possibility of further birth (because she will grow into a woman who might bear children.) So if childbirth makes one tamei, then bearing a daughter makes one tamei for twice as long, as though one were taking on the tamei quality once on one's own behalf and once on behalf of the new daughter. It's logical...if we accept the premise that childbirth creates tumah. So we're back to question one. Maybe we're back to question zero: what is tumah, anyway?

Scholar and theologian Rachel Adler has an answer that I find both interesting and compelling. In "Tumah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings" (published in The Jewish Woman, ed. Elizabeth Koltun), she writes,

Tumah is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality. It is the going down into darkness. Taharah is the result of our reaffirmation of our own immortality. It is the reentry into light. Tumah is devil or frightening only when there is no further life. Otherwise, tumah is simply part of the human cycle. To be tameh is not wrong or bad. Often it is necessary and sometimes it is mandatory.

If I'm reading Adler right, then tumah is a kind of charge that comes from contact with death or the possibility of death. It's the natural flipside of taharah, a state of consciousness in which we turn away from death. (Interesting related fact: the rite of preparing a body for burial is called taharah.) According to this interpretation, there's nothing pejorative about Leviticus' proscription that a woman who has just given birth must recuse herself from the Temple and from making sacrifice for a while. Instead it's a way of acknowledging that she's just come through a passageway where life and death are heightened, and she needs some time before she can return to ordinary consciousness.

Rabbi Malka Drucker seems to agree:

When a woman gives birth, she is in an altered state.... Neither mourners nor birth givers enter the Temple because they will unbalance the community which practices business as usual.... Rather than reading this text narrowly as primitive, maybe misogynistic, and irrelevant to our moment, I suggest that it may be the opposite. In a time when women give birth on Monday, go home Tuesday and have a dinner party Thursday, Tazria gives us permission to enter the fluid, deep transcendence that giving birth offers us. A child is born, a woman becomes a joyful mother, and God is never so near. We are invited to withdraw briefly from the chatter and flow of everyday life to shake our heads and exclaim, "God is in this place and I'm staying here for a while!"

And in her commentary on this Torah portion, Rabbi Phyllis O. Berman muses that tahor and tamei may reflect two kinds of holiness, diffuse/communal and focused/solitary. She's also the only thinker I've read who inverts the question of the short separation (after the birth of a boy) and the long separation (after the birth of a girl) to ask not why the latter separation is so long, but why the former one is so short! Maybe, she suggests, the long separation is normative; birth changes one, and it may well take two months to feel ready to integrate with the wider world again.

As I read Adler and Drucker and Berman, I can feel my frustration with these parashiyot lessening. I can't say I enjoy the text's current focus on bodily fluids (I find myself counting weeks until we get to read parashat Behar and I can think about the sabbatical and Jubilee years again!) but at least these portions don't feel as immediately alienating to me.

Granted, these readings of this text are biased by their authors' perspectives on gender and embodiment, but that's okay by me. I'm not sure it's possible to have a perfectly objective reading of any text (much less one as central as Torah), anyway.  As Ismar Schorsch writes, "in Judaism precisely because the Torah is revered as divine, it becomes susceptible to unending interpretation. It would be a denigration of God's word to saddle it with just a single meaning." (Yes, if you've been reading VR for a year or more you've seen that quote before. I really like it, so I keep using it.)

There are other interesting paths we could follow, here, having to do with taharah and tumah, these Torah portions, Miriam, and Passover, but I don't have time to pursue them, so I'll just point you to this 2003 post from Naomi Chana instead. Also interesting is Rabbi Arthur Waskow's essay, Did Torture Make Us Tamei? One thing I love about Jewish tradition (maybe the thing I love most) is that we continue to find such richness, such springboards for different lines of inquiry, in this one long, complicated, difficult, holy book.



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