Parashat Tazria, Leviticus 12 and 13, is sometimes billed as one of the “worst” parshiot for bar and bat mitzvah students. Certainly it covers some very earthy territory: women’s ritual purity and skin eruptions, and many people are “grossed out” when first they read it.
As with everything in Torah, there are important lessons here. The first lesson for modern Jews is that Torah is not limited to “lofty” matters. We do not make a dichotomy between “things of the body” and “things of the spirit” that some religions do.
More profoundly, the body is holy. It is the handiwork of God and as such has the dignity of holiness. It may do things that are messy or smell bad or are embarrassing, but they are not beyond the province of Torah.
I remember the first time I read Leviticus 12. I was a pre-teen, very conscious of my own body, and I read it as saying some very negative things about women and women’s bodies. Why would a mother be “impure” for longer after having a baby girl, than after giving birth to a baby boy, if girls were not somehow “dirtier” than boys?
As an adult woman, I continued to glower when I read Leviticus 12. How dare they?! How could such words be Torah?
As a rabbinical student, I learned that “clean” and “unclean” are very poor translations for the Hebrew terms tahor and tamei. Ritual purity is a fleeting state for fitness to enter the holy of holies – it isn’t something that anyone can maintain constantly in daily life. Moreover it is a completely unattainable state ever since the year 70, since we have no Temple and no mechanism for complete ritual purity. Most of all, taharah and tumah don’t have anything to do with “dirt” or “germs.” (For more about this, see Rabbi Barenblat’s d’var Torah below.)
Then in 2008 I read an article by Beth Alpert Nakhai in the Women’s Torah Commentary (p. 650) about the mothers in Leviticus 12. She pointed out that the longer period of ritual impurity for the mother of a girl meant that baby girls got additional time secluded with their mothers, who were freed from the burdens of daily life for that time. In a world where baby girls were less valued than boys, that time was golden, extra insurance that the girls would get enough to eat and grow strong before mom had to go back to her chores.
That lesson completely transformed Parashat Tazria for me.
Here are some online divrei Torah. I hope somewhere in there is something transformative for you!
What Do You See? by Student Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen
One Flesh by Rabbi David Kasher
Rx For the Human Spirit by Rabbi Ruth Adar
Tricky Torah: Taharah and Tumah by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
The Woman’s Seed by Rabbi Sylvia Rothchild
R. Shimon’s Thinking is Alive and Well by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
Think Before You Tweet! by Rabbi David Ross Senter (VIDEO)