Parshat Tazria Symposium: Part I, The Midrashic Approach

In April 2015, Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ hosted a panel discussion on alternative interpretations of the first verses of Parshat Tazria (Leviticus Chapter 12). The panel included Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz, a scholar of Midrash and chair of the Bible department at SAR High School, Dr. Shuli Sandler, a psychoanalyst in private practice, and myself. The discussion was moderated by Rabbi Nati Helfgot. Our shared question was how to approach the difficult section of the “Isha Yoledet,” the woman who gives birth and is obligated to bring a sacrifice (“korban chatat”) to the Tabernacle.

This section is difficult primarily for two reasons. First, it’s unclear why a woman who gives birth would be barred from the Tabernacle and then obligated to bring a korban chatat offering, usually translated as “sin offering,” upon re-entry. What is sinful about giving birth to a child, and must we really consider a miracle such as childbirth to be analogous to other bodily afflictions/emissions that prevent one from approaching the sanctuary? Second, the verses require that a woman who gives birth to a female child remain outside of the Tabernacle for double the amount than she would for a male child. The reason for this discrepancy goes unmentioned.

Rather than try to definitively answer these questions,  the panel suggested three different methodologies for approaching this material, and for approaching the Bible in general. Tammy Jacobowitz looked at this section through a midrashic lens, examining a beautiful midrash from Leviticus Rabbah that reframes this seemingly dry ritual material into a vibrant theological message about God’s place in the childbirth process. Shuli Sandler analyzed this segment with the help of legendary psychoanalytic thinker Donald Winnicott whose views on mother-child bonding immediately after birth involve a necessarily delayed entry into social and communal life. I drew on cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas’s work of Bible analysis Leviticus as Literature to suggest a theory for how the Isha Yoledet, and broader section about ritual impurity that it introduces, may function on a literary level. Taken together, these approaches testify to the multifaceted nature of the Bible, and the value in exercising variegated methodological tools in order to unlock its profound insights.

These three responses will be delivered in two  installments. The Midrashic Response is presented here as Part I of III.

Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz: A  Midrashic Lens on Leviticus 12

Source: Leviticus Rabbah 14:3 (translated by Tammy Jacobowitz)

Petihta verse: “You bestowed upon me life and care; Your providence watched over my spirit” (Job 10:12)

(1) R. Abba the son of Kahana offered three (parables):
(a) R. Abba the son of Kahana said:
It is the custom of the world that if a man holds a bag of money and turns the opening downwards, do not the coins scatter? So, too, the fetus dwells in his mother’s womb, but the Holy One, blessed be He, guards it (the fetus) so that it will not fall out and die. Is this not, “life and care?”
(b) R. Abba the son of Kahana said another (parable):
It is the custom of the world that a beast walks with its body in a horizontal position, and the fetus is placed within the beast’s womb in the form of a covered wagon. But a woman walks erect while the fetus is in her womb, and the Holy One, blessed be He, guards it (the fetus) so that it will not fall out and die. Is this not, “life and care?”
(c) R. Abba the son of Kahana said another (parable):
It is the custom of the world that a beast has its udders in the place where her womb is and her offspring suck at a shameful place (מקום בושתה). Whereas a woman has her breasts in a beautiful part of her body and her baby sucks at a dignified place (מקום כבודה). Is this not, “life and care?
(2) R. Elazar said: If a man were to stay in an oven for one hour, would he not die? Now a woman’s womb is at boiling temperature, and the fetus is in the womb, and the Holy One, blessed be He, guards it so that it should not turn into a [mere] membraneous bag, or a placenta, or a sandal-like bag.
Is this not, “life and care?
(3) R. Tahalifa of Caesarea said: If a man should eat one portion after another, would not the second expel the first? Yet, however much food a woman eats, and however much liquid she drinks, this does not expel the fetus.
Is this not, “life and care?
(4) R. Simon said: A woman’s womb consists of many chambers, many coils, and many bands so that when she sits on the travailing chair, she does not cast the fetus all at once. There is a popular saying, ‘when one band is loosened, two bands are loosened’.
(5) R. Meir said: The whole nine months (of pregnancy) that a woman does not see (menstrual) blood, she really should (see it). What does the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He directs it (the blood) upward to her breasts and turns it into milk, so that the fetus may come forth and have food to eat. All the more so, if it is a male! “When a woman conceives and bears a male child” (Lev. 12:2)

Climbing Mother (Brian Kershisnik)

Leviticus 12 begins with a general injunction to Moses, “Speak to the Israelite people,” but it places ritual and sacrificial demands solely on the new mother. The verb tazria, variously translated as ‘at childbirth’, ‘brings forth seed’, or ‘conceives’ seems to put the mother in an unusually central procreative role. The midrash in Leviticus Rabbah 14, however, thoroughly unseats the mother as both the grammatical and thematic subject. Leviticus Rabbah 14 consistently reorients God as the main actor in the childbirth drama and develops a series of homilies extolling God’s committed, compassionate and intimate relationship with each and every fetus. This midrash replaces the mother with God as the primary actor of childbirth and the subject of discussion.

LR 14’s striking re-reading of Leviticus 12 in terms of “theology,” or as an occasion to discuss God, does not engage with the typical questions that concern most interpreters of Leviticus 12, be they ancient, medieval or modern. In fact, LR’s interpretation of chapter 12 largely ignores the entire ritual prescription for a postpartum woman. All nine passages in LR 14 engage exclusively with chapter 12’s first three verses. None of the verses that outline a mother’s process of separation, purification and sacrificial responsibility appear in the midrashic parashah, even as a slight reference. The cumulative effect of the parashah is to transform this unassuming verse, whose scriptural purpose is strictly introductory, into a subject of inquiry in its own right. The biblical background becomes the midrashic foreground.

In making God the subject of the verse and the primary character to be watched, noticed and praised as a child is born, LR 14 does more than replace the mother with God; it presents a way of conceiving God in relationship with human beings that is fundamentally different from Leviticus’ conception of divinity. LR 14 depicts God as a nurturer, who functions in close relationship with human beings. This image stands in direct contrast to Leviticus’ portrait of divinity, that is, a removed, impersonal, and awesome divine presence. By no means do I claim that the rabbis of LR consciously set out to adapt or transform Leviticus’ view of God in their midrash on Leviticus 12. But our examination of LR’s interpretation of Leviticus must consider the ways in which LR 14’s theologizing discourse reflects a real change in conceptions of divinity. LR does not only “update” Lev. 12 from a set of ritual laws to a code for theological exploration; it rejects or radically redirects Leviticus’ presentation of God.

If we turn to Leviticus’ portrait of God, we encounter a somewhat paradoxical situation. In many respects, God — and the presumption of divine presence in the world — permeates the whole of the book. Leviticus structures a highly ordered universe where human actions have concrete and wide-ranging consequences, and where even inadvertent sins, or actions that were unintended, register within the sanctuary and affect the entire community.  Furthermore, Leviticus’ purity laws safeguard the sacred sanctuary from human mortality, as well as from the human body’s leakage, its ebb and flow.

Despite the presumption of divine presence in the sanctuary, God largely resides in Leviticus’ details. Leviticus’ deity is impersonal and removed, in whose presence the only proper response is silence. In Leviticus, no one, not even Moses, speaks to God, although God speaks to humans. The High Priest, who gains access to the holiest depths of the sanctuary on the holiest day of the year, does not confront God directly. As Tikva Frymer-Kensky summarizes it, “he experienced a God who was doubly veiled, obscured first by the cloud in which God hovers, then by the cloud of incense the priest created, a cloud of incense that prevented him from even glimpsing the divine cloud.” In Leviticus, the average Israelite achieves forgiveness simply by performing the required ritual acts. Atonement does not depend on the will of God.  Furthermore, God language in Leviticus reinforces this portrait of a removed, relatively disengaged God. Israel Knohl points to Leviticus’ syntactical structures that “avoid attributing directly to God any actions of memory, volition, or forgiveness in the cultic realm” to both “stress the impersonal aspect of divinity and to avoid anthropomorphic imagery.”

By contrast, the LR parashah presents God as the personal, providential caretaker of each human being. From the earliest stage of life as “the whitest drop,” God provides for each person’s needs, overcoming all obstacles in the path of a healthy birth. Focusing on the fetus allows the rabbis to frame the relationship between God and each human being as always already present, even as the person is himself still in formation. The parashah’s series of portraits of God’s involvement are exquisitely intimate. In fact, much of the parashah imagines this relationship within an impossibly small space – the womb — drawing God into the personal universe of each and every human being. God is man’s companion, friend, nurturer, parent, and caregiver.

This summary was adapted from Dr. Jacobowitz’s 2010 University of Pennsylvania doctoral thesis entitled Leviticus Rabbah and the Spiritualization of the Laws of Impurity.

Stay tuned for Parts II and III of this Parshat Tazria Symposium: “The Psychonalytic Approach” by Shuli Sandler, and “The Literary Approach” by Sarah Rindner.

One thought on “Parshat Tazria Symposium: Part I, The Midrashic Approach

  1. Pingback: Parshat Tazria Symposium: Parts II and III, the Psychoanalytic and Literary Approaches – The Book of Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s