A commentary on the Torah portion, Tazri’a-M’tzora 

LJ E-Bulletin, 04.23

Jewish practice, rooted in Jewish teaching, is visceral. It concerns what Jews do with our bodies from the kitchen to the bedroom, how we mark our homes, what we wear, and how we celebrate Shabbat and the festivals with food, rituals and song.

The Book of Leviticus opens with lists of sacrifices of animals and grains cooked or burnt on the Temple altar that was at the centre of Jewish life for a thousand years. It then turns to rituals surrounding the consecration of the officiating priesthood, creatures that can and cannot be eaten, and a ban on the eating of wild animals and those that die naturally. This week’s double parashah, Tazri’a-M’tzora, begins with women in childbirth, and proceeds to skin eruptions and house-wall eruptions, both described as tza’ra’at, which is usually translated as ‘leprosy’. The double portion concludes with seminal emissions and menstrual blood. The disruptive impact of each of these – childbirth, eruptions and secretions – is resolved with ritual, including immersion in water.

The first five portions of Leviticus bring the reader into an ancient realm of life and worship that may feel quite alien, especially to a Liberal Jew. It is for this reason that Liberal Judaism tends to focus on those parts of Leviticus that feel more relatable to contemporary society: the ethical and social justice rules of K’doshim (Leviticus 19) and B’har (Leviticus 25), and the biblical festival calendar set out in Emor (Leviticus 23). Nevertheless, I think a case can be made for Liberal Jews finding ways of making meaning for our Jewish lives out of the apparently less spiritually edifying parts of Leviticus, not least, the messy areas of human experience that constitute the content of Tazri’a-M’tzora.

We start with the acknowledgement that we humans, with our wonderful intellectual capacities that separate us from the other creatures, nevertheless, like the other creatures, inhabit bodies that encompass bodily functions and experience ailments and dysfunctions. Tazri’a-M’tzora reminds us to include our bodies in our religious lives.

This does not entail adopting the patriarchal worldview of the Torah. As soon as we start reading Tazri’a, which opens at Leviticus chapter 12, we are confronted with the gender binary (12.1-5):

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to the Israelites saying: when a woman in childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; shall be unclean as at the time of her menstruation. / On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. / She shall remain in a state of blood purification for 33 days: she shall not touch any consecrated being, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. / If she bears a female, she shall be unclean two weeks as during her menstruation, and shall remain in a state of blood purification for 66 days.

The differences between the strictures concerning the births of males and females are striking. The mother’s state of ritual impurity following the birth of her baby was double when she bore a daughter: 7 days/33 days for a male; 14 days/66 days for a female. In giving birth to a male, a woman brought a child into the world, who did not share her gender. Hence, following seven days of ritual impurity, on the eighth day he was circumcised and so initiated into the society of males, whose destiny he would share once he reached adulthood. Circumcision itself may be seen as a form of cultural mimicry: the removal of the foreskin, causing the male generative organ to bleed, just as the female bleeds naturally, both when menstruating and in childbirth. With circumcision, the binary opposition of male as bearer of culture versus female as embodiment of nature is reinforced. By contrast, when a mother gave birth to a female, she brought into the world a potential menstruating and child-bearing woman like herself, hence, the double indemnity.

Significantly, the practice of circumcision has been a feature of Liberal Judaism since its inception. Just as significant, in the past forty years, Jewish feminism has led the way in reconstructing the ancient practice of ritual immersion in water in the context of the lives of Jews today (see: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/mikveh and https://ritualwell.org/ritual/mikveh/). In fact, influenced by Jewish Feminism, a progressive mikveh initiative called ‘The Wellspring Project’, launched in 2018, ‘aims to build a centre for wellbeing in Barnet’ that is ‘a welcoming, inclusive and non-judgemental space for people of all ages, genders, faiths or non-religious beliefs’ that ‘will promote the use of Jewish ritual such as immersion as part of our well-being, good mental health, recovery, and for moments of celebration.’ In addition to ‘immersion pools’, the centre ‘will include rooms for talking and complimentary therapies and groups’ (see: https://www.liberaljudaism.org/2022/03/find-out-more-about-the-wellspring-project/ and https://www.wellspringuk.org/).

During the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, produced Our Bodies Ourselves. A Book By and For Women (New England Free Press). I still have a copy of the original 1970 edition. A self-help manual, it has been republished many times in the past 53 years. I think the moment has arrived for Liberal Jews to embrace the deep wisdom underlying Tazri’a-M’tzora: that living our lives as Jews, entails engaging our bodies, and acknowledging every aspect of our embodied humanity in our Jewish practice.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah