Parshat Tazria Symposium: Parts II and III, the Psychoanalytic and Literary Approaches

Presented here are the second and third parts of a symposium on Parshat Tazria that began with a midrashic analysis by Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz in Part I. In Part II Dr. Shuli Sandler looks at Leviticus 12 through the prism of psychoanalytic theories of maternal bonding as articulated by D.W. Winnicott. Sarah Rindner draws on the work of Mary Douglas in Part III to offer a literary theory for how the mother in Leviticus 12 functions amid the concerns of the book as a whole.

Dr. Shuli Sandler: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Leviticus 12

When examining Leviticus 12, there are several questions that emerge. The first is the question of why the mother who has given birth is required to engage in a three-stage process of re-entry into the community. While there are parallels between the rules surrounding the mother who has given birth and other forms of ritual impurity, childbirth is treated in a unique and distinctive manner in Leviticus.  The second question is why there is a discrepancy between the woman’s status of purity depending on whether she gives birth to a baby boy or a baby girl. While a psychoanalytic approach is not capable of unlocking the “original intent” of these verses, my hope is that it may inspire new ideas and new ways to think about the Torah in a meaningful and psychologically resonant manner.

D.W. Winnicott was a 20th century British pediatrician who became a psychoanalyst, and he developed many profound theories about mothers and babies based on his experiences interacting with them. His understanding of the psychological process that occurs immediately after childbirth is of particular relevance to our chapter in Leviticus:

“It is my thesis that in the earliest phase we are dealing with a very special state of the mother, a psychological condition which deserves a name, such as Primary Maternal Preoccupation. I suggest that sufficient tribute has not yet been paid in our literature, or perhaps anywhere, to a very special psychiatric condition of the mother, of which I would say the following things:

It gradually develops and becomes a state of heightened sensitivity during, and especially towards the end of, the pregnancy.

It lasts for a few weeks after the birth of the child.

It is not easily remembered by mothers once they have recovered from it.

I would go further and say that the memory mothers have of this state tends to become repressed.

This organized state (that would be an illness were it not for the fact of the pregnancy) could be compared with a withdrawn state, or a dissociated state, or a fugue, or even with a disturbance at a deeper level such as a schizoid episode in which some aspect of the personality takes over temporarily. I would like to find a good name for this condition and to put it forward as something to be taken into account in all references to the earliest phase of infant life. I do not believe that it is possible to understand the functioning of the mother at the very beginning of the infant’s life without seeing that she must be able to reach this state of heightened sensitivity, almost an illness, and to recover from it. (I bring in the word ‘illness’ because a woman must be healthy in order both to develop this state and to recover from it as the infant releases her…)”

(D.W. Winnicott, Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis, 1975)

Painting by Cecile Veilhan

“It is necessary here to attempt to state briefly what happens to the inherited potential if this is to develop into an infant, and thereafter into a child, a child reaching towards independent existence. Because of the complexities of the subject such a statement must be made on the assumption of satisfactory maternal care, which means parental care. Satisfactory parental care can be classified roughly into three overlapping stages:

(a) Holding.

(b) Mother and infant living together. Here the father’s function (of dealing with the environment for the mother) is not known to the infant.

(c) Father, mother, and infant, all three living together.”

(D.W. Winnicott,  “The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship,” 1960)

In these excerpts, Winnicott articulates, and differentiates between, various emotional states of the postpartum woman. Starting with birth, the mother is primarily preoccupied with her baby, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Winnicott suggests that this appears almost as if it is an illness. The mother is so preoccupied with her baby that it is as if it is just the two of them in the world, with no room left for anyone else. After this period of “primary maternal preoccupation,” the world of the mother slowly expands to include the father as well.  Eventually, as the family unit is solidified, the mother becomes ready to reengage with the larger world as well.

Our text in Leviticus presents a three-part process that strikingly resembles these stages. In the first stage,  after the birth of the baby, the mother experiences dam temeia (blood impurity) of seven days for a boy or fourteen days for a girl. During this time, the mother and her baby exist in a dual world, shared only by the two of them. The dam temeia renders her impure and facilitates an experience where she is home-centered and separated from her ritual and communal context. This means that she and her baby are given the space to bond during this state, along the lines of Winnicott’s primary maternal preoccupation.

The next biblical stage is that of dam tehora (blood purification), which is 33 days long for an infant boy and 66 days for an infant girl. During this stage, the woman is permitted to have intimate relations with her husband, yet she is still forbidden to enter the Tabernacle. Perhaps the period of dam tehora may be likened to Winnicott’s next stage, during which the world of the mother and baby are symbolically expanded to include the father as well. At the end of this 33 or 66 day period, the mother then goes to the Tabernacle to bring a sacrifice. This represents her full reentry into the world, in which she is no longer only focused on her baby or family, but also reintegrated with her social milieu and her status as a full member of the Jewish community. In this sense, the various stages of blood purification represent symbols through which the relationship between the baby and mother is defined and expanded over the time.

This model may also provide some insight into the differentiated spans of impurity for boys and girls.  Essentially, the days of both dmei temeia and dmei tehora are doubled for a girl. There is another psychoanalytic concept of “identification” which is relevant here. A child’s identification with the same sex parent is crucial in psychoanalytic literature. It is thus striking that each stage would be elongated for a girl versus a boy. After the birth of a girl, the primary preoccupation period is 14 days during which the mother and daughter have more time in a private world where they can bond as females. With the boy, this period is shortened in order to include his father at an earlier point. This transition is symbolically represented by the commandment of brit milah, which is a commandment that is given to the father. Through this action, the father welcomes his son into the Jewish community as a male and establishes his own form of same gender identification with his son. Thus, the framework that is introduced at the beginning of Leviticus 12 sets up a precedent in which healthy same sex identification is encouraged between parent and child even in infancy in order to maximize a healthy and integrated self over the child’s life.

Sarah Rindner: A Literary Perspective on Leviticus 12

“The essential structure of a poem (as distinguished from the rational or logical ‘statement’ which we derive from it) resembles that of architecture or painting: it is a pattern of resolved stresses. Or, to move closer still to poetry by considering the temporal arts, the structure of a poem resembles that of a ballet or musical composition.

Dancers (Edgar Degas, 1878)

This statement was made by the mid-20th century literary critic Cleanth Brooks in an essay entitled “The Heresy of Paraphrase.” For Brooks, it’s a mistake try to derive specific meanings from a poem without paying sufficient attention to its form. One would never listen to a symphony and say that it is “about” one particular thing or another. The “heresy of paraphrase,” is to assume that it’s possible to summarize, or comprehensively explain, any work of literature. A similar articulation of this idea comes from the poet Archibald MacLeish, when he says “a poem should not mean but be.”

In Leviticus as Literature, Mary Douglas looks at the book of Leviticus using a similar critical lens. Douglas was a well known anthropologist, who spent years studying ritual purity and impurity in tribal cultures in Africa and Asia. She sought to apply some of her discoveries to the Jewish conception kashruth as originally expressed Leviticus, with mixed results. The more Douglas explored the Bible, the more she sensed the limitations of anthropological methods for making sense of the world of the Bible. Douglas eventually realized that in order to understand why any particular thing is prohibited or seen as impure in Leviticus, we need to understand the book itself as a work of art – or how the contents of the various chapters fit into the larger aesthetic experience of the book.

Her Leviticus theory draws heavily on the Biblical commentator Nachmanides, who theorized that the description of Mount Sinai we find in the book of Exodus actually mirrors the structure of the Tabernacle. The diagram below  illustrates how the description of Har Sinai in Exodus lines up with the description of the Tabernacle in Leviticus. Depicted at the bottom is the initial approach to Har Sinai, which is parallel to the outer courtyard of the Mishkan. The middle section contains the cloud, the anan, that covered the mountain, which is parallel to the central part of the Mishkan that includes the clouds of incense. The summit of Mount Sinai is parallel to the Tabernacle’s Kodesh Kedoshim (Holy of Holies).

Excerpt from Leviticus as Literature (Oxford University Press, 2001)

Douglas extends Nachmanides’ analogy between Mount Sinai and the Tabernacle to apply to the book of Leviticus as a whole. The idea of a book being modelled on an architectural structure was apparently a relatively common one in antiquity, thus it is not as radical an idea as it might sound. In this spirit, Douglas reads a basic tri-partite division into the book of Leviticus and argues that the different sections, in terms of both their size and content, correspond to the different parts of the Tabernacle. This is  laid out in the two diagrams below, which plot the various chapters of Leviticus onto the Tabernacle. Three sections of Leviticus are projected onto the tripartite architecture of the Tabernacle, which itself is modeled on the three-zoned proportions of Mount Sinai.  She draws on a variety of literary features of Leviticus to prove her point: the increasing intensification of the laws and their consequences as the book progresses, the two narrative sequences (Nadav/Avihu and the blasphemer) which correspond to the “screens” separating one section of the Tabernacle from another one, and also the many architectural motifs and references to Mount Sinai that appear throughout the book.


Chapter 12 of Leviticus is part of a circular “ring structure” that, in Douglas’ view, corresponds to the outer court of the Mishkan. The chapters on each side of the structure are parallel to one another – all them deal with the laws of sacrifices, defilement, and with the potential for atonement. Douglas also makes a fascinating argument that the structure of the animal body as we encounter it in Leviticus is also parallel to the same tripartite structure of the Tabernacle, as you can see in the middle of the first diagram. Thus, in the eyes of Douglas, body, house, mountain, and book, are all simulacra of one another. Together they form concentric rings that enrich Leviticus with layer upon layer of embedded meaning.

When then, does all this have to do with the Isha Yoledet of Chapter 12? I’d like to offer three relevant considerations.

1)Sefer Leviticus is a book that is made up of microcosms. Throughout the book we see parts standing in for wholes, individual chapters stand for sections of the Tabernacle, and also Har Sinai. The individual bodies of the animal sacrifices also stand in for the sacrificial apparatus as a whole. Unlike the other four books of the Torah, Leviticus is not a linear, chronological narrative. Leviticus is made up of a series of parts that stand in for wholes, all of which help us arrive at a greater meaning that is not purely rational, but also physical and experiential. By reading Leviticus we are embodying the processing of walking through the Tabernacle, even through the innermost sanctum.

2)The Isha Yoledet in Chapter 12 is part and parcel of a larger chiastic structure, made up of four chapters, all of which deal with the purity of the body. Whenever you look at a chiastic structure it is important to look at its center to see what it is really about, and at the center of this chiasm we have tzara’at (a Biblical skin affliction): tzara’at of the body, tzara’at of garments, and tzara’at of the home. These diseased states are bookended by the emissions of the woman who has given birth, and the reproductive emissions of men and women. The inclusion of tzara’at of the house along with the various other ailments of the body, is a curious choice. This too may function as a kind of microcosm of what goes on in the Tabernacle in general, where the bodies of animals and the sacred house are interwoven in order to promote closeness to God. The presence of the Isha Yoledet functions  to cement the connection between body and house that is essential to what it means to have a Tabernacle or Temple

3)An additional motif of Leviticus that Douglas’ theory highlights is one of boundaries and separation. The parts of the Tabernacle are defined by screens that separate one section from another, and only select people who have performed specific rites, as sanctioned by God, can traverse these boundaries. In Douglas’ previous anthropological work, she showed how ritual impurity is not necessarily related to a lack of cleanliness, or even to sin,  but rather, to a kind of an unboundedness.  For Douglas, “ritual purity imposes God’s order on his creation,” similar to the way which God created the world in Genesis- through the language of separation and distinction.Things that breach boundaries are not inherently bad, they indicate fertility and expansiveness, and in the case of childbirth, they are of course wonderful blessings. The ritual service of God, however, takes place in a more structured framework. Just like God contained his waters and restricted them after the flood in Parshat Noach, so too we contain and restrict this overflow when entering into a covenant with God. Thus, when the Isha Yoledet must offer a sacrifice, she is in a way imitating God. She is restoring the order that was breached during the expansive and boundary-breaking process of childbirth.

When analyzing a work of literature it’s impossible to fully differentiate between form and content. The underlying structure of Leviticus is inherently linked to the specific messages contained within. When we look at Leviticus, as well as any biblical text, we need to pay attention not only to what it says, but how it’s being said, and to the rich artistry with which the Torah is constructed.



One thought on “Parshat Tazria Symposium: Parts II and III, the Psychoanalytic and Literary Approaches

  1. Pingback: Parshat Tazria Symposium: Part I, The Midrashic Approach – The Book of Books

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