The Red Cow: A Feminist Interpretation

Image: A red cow. (pexel.com)

The laws of ritual purity left the daughters of Israel a problematic legacy. No matter how body-positive we may strive to be, the Torah text in Leviticus 15 tells us that the natural function of menstruation regularly render women’s bodies tum’ah, ritually problematic.* Unfortunately, in the past readers have seized upon those commandments, jumping to the conclusion that the people who inhabit those bodies (women) are problematic and perhaps lesser or more dangerous than people with bodies that don’t bleed monthly. This has given rise to folklore and rules that continue to be extremely damaging to the rights of women.

The ritual of the Red Cow in Parashat Chukat may offer a counterweight to negative attitudes toward the menstruating body. The Red Cow is distinct from other sacrifices in important ways:

  • It is a female animal, rather than a male. It is specifically an adult cow. (Mishnah Parah 1.1).
  • It is sacrificed outside the camp, rather than before the Tent of Meeting.
  • A little of its blood is sprinkled toward (but not on) the Tent of Meeting, but most of the blood is left to be burned with the Cow.
  • Shni tola’at, “crimson stuff” is also burnt with the Cow. Shni tola’at means “scarlet produced by the scale insect kermes vermilio.” The ash of this fire, when combined with mayyim chayyim (“living water”) in Numbers 19:17, produces an antidote for corpse tum’ah.

The combination of these elements: a female animal, the complete separation from the usual sacrificial site, the emphasis on blood and the color red (Red Cow, fire, “crimson stuff,”) and the use of mayyim chayyim –— the same water required for mikvaot -— suggest that the ultimate
tum’ah of death may be balanced by a ritual that makes repeated references to the menstrual process!

May we, in studying this ancient antidote to ritual impurity, be led to value the messiness of our human bodies and affirm life wherever we find it!

*For a fuller explanation of tum’ah, which is often translated “impure” or “unclean” but which has nothing to do with cleanliness, see Clean and Unclean: A primer.

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rabbiadar

Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

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