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 Noach: Abundance, Restraint and the Porridge Pot Myth

The following interpretation of Parshat Noach comes by way of the book of Vayikra, and specifically Mary Douglas’s great work of biblical analysis, Leviticus as Literature.  Douglas’s book emerged from her work as an anthropologist studying various cultures and their sacred taboos. This in turn piqued her interest in the food restrictions listed in Leviticus 11, and she began to explore the question of what makes certain animals prohibited for consumption. One of her many insights is that cultures don’t only prohibit things that are bad, unclean or disgusting – sometimes taboos exist for the purpose of preserving or protecting a revered entity. Douglas cites the example of “winged swarming things” (שֶׁרֶץ הָעוֹף), which are forbidden by the Torah for human consumption, yet their description suggests a kind of overflowing or “teeming” quality that is associated with fertility and expansiveness. In Parshat Noach, the Torah echoes this language in God’s command regarding reproduction shortly after the flood recedes: “Be fertile, then, and increase; abound on the earth and increase on it” וְאַתֶּם, פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ; שִׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ, וּרְבוּ-בָהּ. (Gen. 9:7)

According to Douglas, the challenge of what to do with this fertile abundance – how to nourish it, protect it, but also contain it and keep it from “taking over” – is part of what it means to establish a covenant with God. Fertility is something that is addressed by the covenant but is also separate from it. The boundless and expansive spirit of procreation that is represented by the swarming creatures is precious to God and to humanity/the Jewish people, but the covenant is necessary to order and restrict this overflow.


There is an obvious connection between this tension and the story of the deluge in Parshat Noach. In this story, water – typically associated with blessing – takes over the world. When God eventually restricts these waters humanity is presented with a covenant, a concrete sign that God has contained this overflow in order to leave room for humans and animals to live.

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