Although the majority of this week’s portion is devoted to purification rituals and regulations regarding the affliction tzara’at (often erroneously rendered as “leprosy”), it is the opening section on childbirth that gets our initial attention.
The Torah suggests that childbirth renders the mother ritually impure. “Impure” here is a technical category and does not necessarily carry the disparagement assumed by the word in contemporary usage. “Impure” here functions much the way as “contagious” might in restricting access to a hospital room. It refers primarily to a series of curbs regarding access to and/or contact with components of the ritual system associated with the Mishkan (portable sanctuary) and later with the Temple in Jerusalem. To discharge the impurity, a series of offerings and the fulfillment of several cycles of time are required.
Contemporary Jews, influenced by the feminist revolution and its Jewish recension, often have great difficulty with this portion. The ancient assumptions within it suggest a problematic attitude toward women in general and toward their unique biological capacity to generate life.
A closer reading of the text together with a sympathetic reading of traditional Jewish commentary on this section mitigates to a degree the discomfort we may experience. But we remain acutely aware of the curious combination of awe and anxiety (and perhaps envy) that the (presumably male) Torah writers evidence in the face of the mysterious moment of birth.
Much of contemporary anthropological research focuses on the ways in which cultures manage marginal moments, especially those at the borders of life. In every birth and in every death, the overwhelming mystery and majesty of existence is replayed. The questions rabbinic tradition dissuades from addressing — what comes before (creation), what is above (existence), and what is below (reality) — are unavoidable at these marginal moments.
Among the most rational and non-religious people, one often finds a sympathetic nod in the direction of traditional rituals and customs associated with birth. The presumably protective custom of the red ribbon — affixed to the mother or baby (or both) or to the birthing bed or the crib — can often be found in modern Jewish settings, employed by Jews who otherwise distance themselves from “superstitious rituals.”
The Torah records an early Jewish cultural response to birth, one that suggests a need to neutralize the anxiety and awe through the imposition of a set of stabilizing and normative rituals. While moderns might find the Torah attitudes and rituals to be archaic, the awe and mystery and the anxiety that continue to surround birth, even in our modern setting, remain.
At the other end of the life cycle, secular non-observant Jews often become compliant, even scrupulous, with regard to the requirements of mourning.
What is it about these liminal moments, these boundaries of life and death, that call forth ritual response? Perhaps it is the universality of the events — after all, regardless of language, culture, gender, religion, each human being, past, present, and future, shares with every other human being the two common moments of birth and death.
Perhaps it is the humbling awe that is evoked in the presence of life itself that unconsciously, subconsciously, or consciously makes us seek out rituals that carry us over these moments in which meaning threatens to overwhelm us.
Perhaps it is the anxiety at the fragility of life — the tender vulnerability of the neonate, the powerless surrender of those who slip into death — that suggests substitutionary actions, such as the ritual sacrifices prescribed by the Torah, which vainly but valiantly do battle against the transience of existence.
At the margins of life, we are often surprised to find that notwithstanding the millennia that lie between the Torah writers and ourselves, we share more with them that we might have imagined — an ability to meet the mystery of life with both reverence and gratitude.