The opening of this week’s double parashat hashavua, linking Tazria and Metzora, begins with a passage which is often understood as negative, even misogynist. A woman giving birth goes into seclusion: “she shall be impure” for a time, and then her period of “blood purification” will continue for thirty-three days upon the birth of a boy, and sixty-six upon a girl’s birth. Why twice the amount of time for a girl? What’s all this about being impure anyway?
It’s not the first time that our Western approach and its assumptions may make it difficult to consider other possibilities. But when we look carefully at the text, other interpretations offer themselves for consideration. And they are not just modern, liberal interpretations.
First, one must look closely at the text. The parashah begins with the words: Ishah ki tazria v’yaldah zakhar, “A woman who conceives and gives birth to a male child” (VaYikra, Leviticus, 12:2).
There is a challenge to our understanding here, since the word tazria actually means “she gives seed” (a verb you might think is applicable only to a man!). In classic Jewish commentary it is not dreamed of, that we might suggest that the Torah’s words are wrong, or that there could be a “typo” in the ancient scriptures. The most traditional of commentaries cannot avoid the plain sense of the text; it must be recognized. It says that a woman “gives seed”. What does that mean?
The Talmud, the ancient source and inspiration of all Jewish law, suggests: “If the woman gives seed first, she gives birth to a male; if the man gives seed first, she gives birth to a female.” (Talmud, Niddah 31a).
Now, never mind the questionable knowledge of biology: note the assumption of an absolute parity of roles. For our ancestors, there was no reason not to draw the conclusion that women and men are equally significant in their reproductive roles. This does not mean that the roles are similar, they are different: only a woman can give birth. And often, although women are as important as men in every aspect of our lives, humans create hierarchies through the differences we observe. Somehow, sometimes (even though you might think that a life-giving uterus would be a trump card!) women are seen as secondary in aspects of Jewish life, even handicapped.
But another commentary points out that, if you look at it another way, all Jews are women, in our relationship with G-d. The commentary Torah Or (“Torah is light”) asserts that “it is known that the community of Israel is called the ‘woman’ and G-d is called the ‘man’,”
…as it is written: “On that day, you shall call Me ‘husband'” (Hoshea 2:18). So just as in the case of a human man and woman, when “the woman gives seed first she give birth to a male,” so it is, by way of analogy, in the relationship between the community of Israel and G-d. When the “woman”–the community of Israel – “gives seed first first,” – when we produce an arousal below which only then evokes an arousal from Above, then the love that is born from this is a “male” offspring.
The “arousal from below” is when we, on our own initiative, “rouse” ourselves to do the mitzvot, without needing a “push” from G-d. This is a higher level of Jewish behavior, certainly more mature: the moment when we don’t wait to be told what to do, but ask ourselves “what is the mitzvah that needs doing here?” We cannot simply trust in G-d; we ourselves must sow the seeds of potential tikkun, healing, in the world. To be a woman in the eyes of G-d is to become our highest spiritual selves.
But what is a “male” offspring? The word for “male” in Hebrew is zakhar (back to our Torah verse here); but the word zakhar can also mean “memory”. Consider the possibility of this interpretation: that it is when we take the initiative and take the first step toward mitzvot ourselves, that we draw near to that which we must remember. Remember that you are created in the Divine Image, remember that you stood at Sinai, and remember that each of us is equally valuable, equally necessary, in the work of all we are commanded by our masoret, the tradition of Israel. First among equals in our traditional obligations is zakhor – remember.
And it is only when the Jew acts as a woman in the sight of G-d that are we able to engender that “male offspring”. Both are necessary, and there must be an equal place for both. But we are not the same – Thank G-d, Creator of many diverse creations.