Rabbi David Greenspoon, Jewtique
This week’s Torah portion is Tazria: Leviticus 12:1-15:33.
Leviticus 12:1-5 details the rituals for a new mother. These challenging verses having invited interpretation, if not struggle for understanding, ever since antiquity.
The concerns many people today express are two-fold.
The first is the Torah’s categorization of the new mother in her first post-partum week. She is “unclean as in the time of her menstrual unwellness” (Robert Alter translation). Nidah, the Hebrew word for menstruation, carries the sense of social isolation beyond excluding marital intimacy. Her son’s circumcision on Day 8 sees her further barred from communal sacred life for 33 days; her isolation lasts a total of 40 days. The idea of the new mother’s enforced isolation from supportive family, friends, and community just as she is most in need of that support challenges many contemporary hearts.
The second issue is gender disparity. The birth of a daughter doubles each stage of the isolation experienced by the new mother. The 19th century scholar R. David Zvi Hoffman cites a Karaite source that suggests the division for the doubled recovery time after delivering a daughter have no readily apparent basis. By implication this applies for the actual doubling as well. More recently, Professor Edward Greenstein has suggested this doubling reflects the potential “life-leak” that has taken place, with a heteronormative presumption for the daughter’s future as a child-bearing woman. Others, like Baruch Levine understand these rules are a polemical reworking of ancient pagan practices. Regardless, the Torah’s legislation on this point again challenges many contemporary hearts.
What would “rethinking Tazria” involve? What would a modern “Torah-policy” for new parents include?
First, let’s move away from ancient taboos in deference to our improved medical knowledge. If anything, a new mother’s experience on the threshold of life-and-death should prompt awe, respect, presence, and support from her extended communities, and certainly from her closest family and dearest friends. Creating the time and space post-partum for new-mother-and-baby routines to be established should certainly continue, but not absent the closeness of physical and emotional comfort and support, as the new mother determines her specific need for it.
Second, it requires we move beyond gender considerations when it comes to understanding the needs of new parents and their families. We have longstanding presumptions that need to be revisited when it comes to supporting new parents. “The Jewish family” is nearly limitless in its complex manners of creation, diverse expression, and variegated appearance. Not every new parent is a woman and not every new parent has a partner. Parent couples are not always comprised of a man and a woman; gay and lesbian couples and parents abound. Adoption, including teen adoption is a growing dynamic in many Jewish homes. Yet, common to all these families is a need to adapt to the changed conditions.
Rethinking Tazria ultimately removes barriers for supporting a family celebrating the arrival of a new member. It creates the sacred space for celebration and naming a newborn child; it similarly creates the time and space for the support of new parents in any and all gender identities. In communal Jewish work spaces, this results in an equitable policy for new parents, with no differentiation in the provisions allowing less or more time because of gender or marital status, nor the age of the child. In Jewish prayer spaces, it means creating the rituals that acknowledge the movement out of and back into communal embrace by a family when welcoming a new life in the home. Finally, rethinking Tazria allows us to celebrate the ongoing reality of “the Jewish family” in meaningful and relevant ways as it continues to evolve dor l’dor, generation to generation.
Rabbi David Greenspoon is founder of Jewtique Concierge Rabbinic Services