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.