On Childbirth, Impurity and Rebirth
Parashat Tazria is an uncomfortable text to read. It talks about impurity. First, the biblical text is concerned with a mother’s impurity after childbirth: Giving birth to her child renders the mother impure, tamei, and she has to stay away from ritual objects and the sanctuary for a certain period of time. After that, she has to give a sin-offering and may engage in sacred activities again. Second, the text addresses rituals around skin-diseases, tzara‘at, often referred to as leprous afflictions. A person with a skin disease is isolated from the holy community for some time and re-admitted only after complete recovery and the priest’s approval.
How can childbirth be a sin and lead to impurity and exclusion from sacred places and instruments, when the first mitzvah mentioned in the Bible is to be fruitful and multiply? How can a skin-coloration lead to isolation, when we address God in our prayers as the Healer, rophei; when there is the idea that the Shekhinah, God’s presence, rests by the head of the sick; when bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, is considered a noble mitzvah? I am puzzled and feel uncomfortable because the old language of impurity and purity, of sin and sacrifice sounds so foreign and remote from our reality.
Both the Haftarah for Tazria (II Kings 4-5) and the one for Metzora (II Kings 7), talk about lepers. In the former, we hear the story of Elisha and the Aramean commander Naaman, a leper. Elisha, the prophet, tells Naaman to dip himself seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman at first refuses but is finally persuaded. When he emerges, his skin is “like a newborn child’s” skin, and he converts to Israel’s religion and praises God. The latter reading tells the story of the four lepers entering the strangely deserted camp of the Arameans.
What are the dynamics and movements in both the Torah text and the Haftarah? In Leviticus, real birth is followed by impurity and separation from holiness, and later sacrifice and purification take place. In the case of the Aramean Naaman, impurity and distance from the God of Israel are followed by rebirth through immersion and purification in living waters. There is a parallel development: both the new mother and the afflicted person undergo a process of recovery, renewal and healing. Both were in dangerous, potentially life-threatening situations, and both reconnect with God through acts of spiritual intervention, through ritual: sacrifice and immersion.
What can we learn from this? What are our rituals of recovery and reconnection today? Prayer is understood to replace ancient Temple sacrifice today. There is the tradition of gomel bentshen, of saying a special benediction after recovering from childbirth or after having survived a dangerous situation. Further, we also pray for healing of loved ones and friends when saying the Mi-sheberakh prayers as part of our Torah services. And in relation to the mikvah, more and more contemporary Jews are discovering the ritual of immersion in living water as a meaningful and helpful element in the process of physical recovery and spiritual healing.
Our tradition provides us with ritual moments marking recovery and renewal, moments in which we connect and reconnect with God. Despite our belief that God is with the sick and the excluded, we seem to need those rituals as reassurance that we are able to establish a balance between God, the individual and the community. Be it out of gratitude or motivated by the need to act out or say out loud what moves us deep inside, we embrace these rituals and communicate through words and actions.
Markus A Lange