By: Rabbi Daniel Aronson
Parashat Tazria is not for the faint of heart. In fact, it is one of the Torah portions most feared by b’nai mitzvah. What 13 year old do you know relishes the thought of talking about childbirth and skin disease before a packed house of onlookers?
Subject matter aside, the portion itself is perplexing. For example, it states that the period of ritual impurity for a woman who gives birth to a girl is twice as long as if she gives birth to a boy. Why is this? In addition, in discussing the skin disease tzara’at, historically but erroneously translated as “leprosy,” the Torah offers a bizarre set of rituals by which a contaminated ritual would be diagnosed by the High Priest, isolated, re-examined, and ultimately declared tabor, spiritually clean. What’s going on here?
Rather than delve into each of these areas, let me refer you to two excellent drashot, commentaries, both available online. First, Rabbi Shai Held, in his article “Living on the Boundary: The Complexity and Anxiety of Childbirth” at http://goo.gl/WKE0aL, offers a convincing response to the discrepancy in the periods of spiritual impurity assumed between giving birth to a girl and giving birth to a boy. He draws our attention to the high rate of maternal death during childbirth that existed in the days of our biblical ancestors. The additional period of impurity for giving birth to a girl, he argues, reflects the ancients’ uneasiness with bringing forth into the world a human being who may well put her own life at risk in the future by conceiving and giving birth.
Lest we think death in childbirth is a thing of the past, though, Rabbi Held shares some shocking statistics from developing countries that beg us not to take for granted our own experience living in a country with advanced health care. In light of the research on death during childbirth in today’s world, Parashat Tazria, thus, reminds us of the precariousness of our existence and the risk to all women in bringing forth new life. Rabbi Held’s message is one to be heeded.
The other essay I recommend is “Illness: Banishment or Empathy?” by my Reconstructionist colleague Rabbi Lewis Eron at http://www.jewishrecon.org/
Rabbi Eron writes: “One of the goals of the Book of Leviticus is to describe a living, working system in which the purity of the Temple is maintained so that the Temple, those who work in it, and those who enter it can experience the fullness of God’s presence. Thus, within Leviticus, the biblical book most interested in the sanctuary and worship, concerns for ritual purity often take precedence over other spiritual and ethical concerns.” This being so, we must recognize that the Torah is not uncaring about people with this mysterious affliction. Indeed, Leviticus does offer treatment for tzara’at, and elsewhere the Torah exhort us to treat the ill with compassion. I believe Rabbi Eron makes the case that is incumbent upon us to view the Levitical approach to tzara’at within its own context and within the greater context of the Torah as well.
Tazria is a difficult portion to read and to understand. I urge us to be patient with the text and to seek out wisdom from commentators throughout the ages. Rabbis Held and Eron are among the many contemporary thinkers whose words can help us navigate the disturbing and enigmatic verses before us this week. Read and learn.