The Unbearable Lightness of Childbirth
What’s a feminist to do with the opening verses of this portion: “And Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman (conceives and) gives birth to a boy: then she shall be unclean seven days…and when the period of her purification is over, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtle dove, for a sin offering, to the opening of the meeting tent of the congregation to the priest.” (Italics mine.) Furthermore, the period of purification is twice as long for a girl baby.
According to the text, then, giving birth, no matter how one translates tamah, creates defilement or impurity, and furthermore it also requires a forgiveness of sin. Nehama Leibowitz calls the laws of purity concerning childbirth the “most perplexing phenomenon” of all such laws. If the first commandment is to procreate, why is the mother fulfilling the mitzvah made unclean? Abravanel flatly states that the mother certainly doesn’t need to bring a sin-offering, because she committed no iniquity.
So the meaning must lie deeper. Midrash Rabbah hints at it by its indirect response to the opening verses. R. Abba b. Kahana waxes lyric at the miracle of pregnancy and childbearing: “In the usual way, if a person holds a bag of money with the opening downwards, do not the coins scatter? Now the embryo has its abode in the mother’s womb, but the Holy One, blessed be God, guards it that it shall not fall out and die. Is this not a matter for praise?” He also goes on to remark that nature has placed udders where the womb is, but a woman “has her breasts in a beautiful part of her body, and her baby sucks at a dignified place.” Other rabbis remarked that the mother never expels the child after eating, and that menstrual blood is alchemically turned to milk for nursing. Furthermore, in utero the baby absorbs food through the navel, exactly what it needs, no matter what the mother eats, and it never needs to defecate. Finally, R. Aihu remarks on another aspect of God’s presence. When the baby is born and “full of ordure and all manner of nauseous substances,” everyone kisses and hugs the baby anyway, especially if it’s a male.
There is nothing ambivalent in our tradition about the birth of a child: It’s pure, cosmic joy that joins heaven and earth, because the Talmud tells us that every child has three parents. It is the most important event in Jewish life, so amazing that the one most intimately connected, the one giving birth, is transformed by it. The mother has come as close to the life/death nexus as anyone can, and both she and the newborn are in a temporarily separate place from the rest of the world. The reason the mother brings a dove for her sin-offering is because the dove is a symbol of homesickness. As the dove returns to the nest, so all who are kept from the sanctuary return to the “nest.” Leibowitz concludes that bearing new life makes the mother brilliantly aware of the greatness of God and at the same time, her own insignificance. She cites Isaiah’s amazement at witnessing the vision of God “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up and God’s train filled the Temple.” (6, 1) His reaction was one of inadequacy: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.”(Ibid. 6, 5)
The creative process tests boundaries. The world begins with God giving birth to the world; When we give birth, we create a world, too. Women live the primal creation in childbirth, yet few have added their oral Torah to how they understand a text that suggests something negative and perhaps dangerous about their experience.
Like the rabbis, when I carried my first child I was filled with astonishment that within me, a being of heart, soul and might was growing, eating, and maybe dreaming. And then, with the help of months of prenatal training, I rode the birth contractions with my son, and hours later, we met face to face in wonder. The midrash says, “In this world a woman bears children with pain, but of the Time to Come [see] what is written! Before she will travail, she will have brought forth; before her pain will come, she will have been delivered of a man-child.”(Isaiah, 66,7)
Maybe the pain isn’t only physical, but emotional. I look at my child; I’m a writer with no words for the first look at him. I look at my husband and male doctor and cannot tell them what this is, who I am now. I can’t even make eye contact with them, because I feel so sorry that they cannot experience this. And I’m feeling inchoate sadness that seems to be connected to the separation caused by my baby’s birth. We are now in a less intimate relationship. I’m embarrassed by my negativity. I remember that the rabbis understood the sin-offering to be for screaming between labor pains that we will never submit to our husbands again. Maybe I should make a sin-offering for my strange regret. That I am feeling so much paradox cannot be talked about with anyone, because I, like Isaiah, feel powerless in the presence of God.
The baby comes home, we fall asleep together, and I imagine him and me as one, not quite separated yet. He and I know something together, we’re bonded. I imagine myself in ancient Israel, having given birth with the assistance of the women in my village. We are left alone much of the time. I know to stay away from the community and I’m grateful, because I cannot tell you where I’ve been, that my whole life is now different, I am no one now except mother. Wife, daughter, sister, friend, I’ll be those again, but not yet. This baby and I are in love, and we know no one else. Maybe we stay outside the community like lovers do, and maybe I have to sacrifice something, make an offering for the sin of my temporary obsession and abandonment of everyone else.
The community is always like a little city that keeps itself centered, to be inclusive of its members. When a woman gives birth, she is in an altered state. For seven days, she keeps herself separate with her son, fourteen days with her daughter. The rabbis understood seven days for the boy so that the circumcision can take place on the eighth day. Most commentaries understand the doubling of time for the girl to be acknowledgment that the baby herself is a potential giver of birth and therefore doubly powerful: more time is needed to absorb the meaning. Neither mourners nor birth givers enter the Temple because they will unbalance the community which practices business as usual. The community provides stability and familiarity. Its very nature threatens those who have been brought closest to God by giving birth or those who feel disconnected from life and its source through death. Our liturgy provides a way for us to journey together towards God, yet the service doesn’t include these two extremes.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, when asked what it meant to believe in God, answered, “To have radical amazement.” Prayer, ritual, study and reaching out to each other are the whetstone for awakening radical amazement. Rather than reading this text narrowly as primitive, maybe misogynistic, and irrelevant to our moment, I suggest that it may be the opposite. In a time when women give birth on Monday, go home Tuesday and have a dinner party Thursday, Tazria gives us permission to enter the fluid, deep transcendence that giving birth offers us. A child is born, a woman becomes a joyful mother, and God is never so near. We are invited to withdraw briefly from the chatter and flow of everyday life to shake our heads and exclaim, “God is in this place and I’m staying here for a while!”