The Authors of Ritual

“When a woman gives birth to a male child, she shall be impure…thirty-three days. She shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary… if she bears a female…sixty-six days.”

For a woman, the birth of a child is life-changing. Yet, how does the Torah respond to this utterly transformative experience? By putting mother, and baby, in a corner. For thirty-three or sixty-six days (depending on the sex of the child), the mother is barred from participating in the ritual life of the community.

This is how this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, opens. No wonder it is often viewed as one of the most troublesome, challenging passages in the entire Torah.

But the impulse of the Torah to create a ritual for a mother after she gives birth actually seems logical, even wise. After all, we would balk at an employer who proposed that new mothers (and, increasingly, new fathers) come back to work immediately following the birth (and, increasingly, the adoption) of a child. We can certainly resonate with the biblical idea that a woman needs time to orient herself to her new reality after she becomes a parent. If we read this Torah portion generously, we can actually see this time of ritual purification as the ancient precursor to paid family leave.

The biblical authors created this post-birth ritual for women using the ideas and tools at their disposal. In this case, the ritual involved cleansing a woman of the “impurity” that she contracted during the messy and cumbersome process of childbirth. When we moderns hear the word “impure,” we hear the heavy baggage that accompanies it; in our minds, impurity connotes something tinged with filth, with evil, and with immorality. But “impurity” in the Torah means something very different. According to the Torah, a person—male or female—acquires impurity when they come into contact with some substance that temporarily disqualifies them from participating in rituals. Contact with a dead body, menstruation, and skin disease all render a person ritually impure. So long as the impure person waits a predetermined amount of time and immerses in a body of flowing water, he or she will again become “pure” and can re-engage in all aspects of religious and communal life. Indeed, people often contract ritual impurity in the course of performing a commandment, like burying a relative. Impurity isn’t evil or demonic; it’s simply part of life, a state of body that occurs in the course of normal events.

The way I see it, the problem with this Torah portion is not that a post-childbirth ritual exists. Quite the contrary. To me, it is a major innovation that our most sacred text and our ancient forebears honor this transformative life experience. They recognize the injustice of forcing a woman to re-enter her normal life and routine immediately following the birth of a child.

The problem with this ritual is that women—the only people who were to undergo it—had no say in its creation. It is almost certain that the architects of this ritual were our male forebears, not our female ones. They conceived of this ritual, but they would never themselves experience it. Without female ritual authors, or without even the input of women, how could men know what women needed in these precious and vulnerable moments after the birth of a child? Perhaps women would have argued against the distinction between the rituals for the birth of a boy verses the birth of a girl. Perhaps they would have been able to decide the exact type of sacrifice that they would offer as they re-entered the community. While I am almost certain that some sort of ritual would have existed had the voices of women been taken into account, I am equally certain that this ritual would have looked very different than the one that appears in the Torah.

The great correction of modernity is that all people are invited to participate in the creation of Jewish life and ritual. No longer is Jewish decision-making solely in the hands of a certain echelon of men. Instead, we are all partners in the formation of Judaism. The only prerequisites are interest and open-mindedness.

Jewish tradition invites us into this role of ritual authors at a very young age. Through the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony, we tell our thirteen-year-olds that they are adequately prepared to take on the role of architects of Jewish life. We initiate boys and girls into this ancient conversation by telling them that their opinions matter, that their words are mighty, and that our community is ready to learn, to grow, and to innovate based on what they have to teach. To be the one imparting this message to our young people is humbling, to say the least.

As we enter Shabbat, may we see ourselves as architects of Jewish meaning and ritual. It’s in our hands now.