Why Does the Bible Require New Mothers to Atone after Childbirth?

The sections on purity and impurity in the book of Leviticus—which make up nearly a quarter of the book—are some of the most difficult for the modern reader of the Bible. The laws are complicated, the terminology obscure, the theological or moral message (if there is one) far from obvious, and some of the details (leprous houses, impure females) seeming logically or morally suspect. Even for the religiously observant Jewish reader, these passages, dealing with areas of halakhah rendered moot until the ultimate restoration of the Temple, may have little resonance.

One of the most confounding of such passages appears at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading of Tazria (Leviticus 12-13). Here God tells Moses that when a woman gives birth to a child, she is impure for several weeks, after which she must offer two distinct sacrifices: an “olah,” or burnt offering, and a “ḥatat,” or sin offering…

The full article may be read at Mosaic Magazine.

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.

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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.

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