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Priests, Pregnancy, and Precarity

04/12/2024 08:24:13 AM


Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Tazria, which deals with ritual impurities, especially those which come from childbirth. I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed before this year how much of the Torah really deals with pregnancy and childbirth, both physical and metaphorical, happening currently in the narrative and happening in the theoretically future. This parasha and its commentary gets into some of the nitty gritty, and talks a lot about blood and the potential danger around birthing.  

There is a period of time following childbirth where the person who has given birth is considered impure similar to the “time of menstrual infirmity,” as the Torah puts it. Then there is a longer period of time where the new birthing parent is no longer considered impure as it pertains to the marital bed, but is still not allowed to bring their own sacrifices to the Mishkan or the Temple, or to generally come into contact with holy items. This time is called “damei tohorah” - literally “pure blood”. In the work of modern commentary, The Five Books of Miriam, the narrators dubbed “our daughters'' ask, “Why, if this blood ‘contaminates,’ is it called ‘pure’?” Within the text, the authors imagine Beruriah the Scholar (one of the few women named in the Talmud, probably actually an amalgamation character of multiple real-life women) answers: “Elsewhere in the Torah, notably in the case of the Red Heifer [which we read just two weeks ago, actually!], we find similar examples of this paradox: contact with holiness, perhaps because it is so fraught with the danger of death, makes a person ritually impure. Here the woman, through her newborn, has forded the dangerous birth canal - and survived. Before she rejoins the community, she needs time to recover fully from her near-death experience.” 

It’s hard not to feel put off by this parasha. I have tutored multiple Bat Mitzvah students for this parasha (and somehow, it does always seem to be Bat Mitzvah celebrants, not Bar Mitzvah - perhaps thankfully), and navigated them through this conversation of bodily fluids right as they are anticipating the onset of some of these blood flows in their own lives. The topic of various bodily fluids is not super pleasant in any circumstance, I think, and the stigma around menstruation compounds the discomfort for discussing the blood flows in this parasha. And while most people know there is blood involved in giving birth and that is less stigmatized, I think we still don’t talk much as a society about the various bodily fluids and bodily harm that can occur during birth. With the advancement of modern medicine making childbirth much safer for both the baby and the birthing parent, we have glossed over the dangers that still lurk in every birthing room. And while the miracle of safe delivery should be celebrated, the divinity in the act of continuing God’s work of creation in this way honored, we must also be mindful of the risks and the reality that this may not be possible for everyone. 

Since this parasha is still mostly about sacrifices, as the whole Book of Leviticus is, we as Reform Jews could put aside all of the concerns around ritual impurity and purification that we are really talking about when we talk about body fluids and functions. But, I would hope we would still want to infuse ritual and meaning around these aspects of our lives. Bodies are weird and interesting and should be celebrated and cared for! Sometimes they hurt and expel things we weren’t expecting, or even if we were expecting, we may wish they were not being expelled uncontrollably from our insides out! These moments of discomfort - physical or emotional - with our bodies also deserve to be honored and sanctified. This can be an act of healing and a purification that helps us transition from one stage of life to the next, rather than thinking about it in terms of cleanliness and dirtiness or holy and sinful. This may mean going to the mikvah, as many Jewish women around the world still do every month and after childbirth. It may mean a bubble bath or spa trip, a sort of mikvah immersion beyond the traditional laws. It may mean saying a blessing, lighting a candle, spending time with specific people who share that particular bodily experience. 

I will close by sharing an excerpt of the prayer from this same chapter of The Five Books of Miriam, in the voice of “Mother Rachel” and “Our Mothers”. It may not resonate with some of you, or no longer resonate with your stage of life. In that case, I suggest that where the prayer invokes the language of wombs, perhaps you may consider other aspects of your body that feel infirm, that need more opening or closing, that need physical therapy or surgery, that cause risk to your life or well-being, and for which you may ask for strength to continue to live to your highest ability, your greatest endurance, your most grateful and giving. And if it still does not reach you personally, may you hold space for those in your lives who do need such prayers, and may you find the strength to share their burdens as well. 

“God of Hosts, please attend to the pain of Your maidservant…. Open the wall of my womb so that I may at the proper time bear this child who is within me - at a time of blessing and salvation. May the child be vital and healthy. May I not struggle only to achieve emptiness, may I not labor in vain, God forbid. Because You alone hold the key to life, as it is written, “And God remembered Rachel and listened to her and opened her womb” (Genesis 30:22). Therefore take pity on my entreaty. From the very depths of my heart, I call to You. I raise my voice to You, God. Answer me from the heights of Your holiness. Selah.”

Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 


Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784