This week’s double parasha, while mainly focusing on a great many gross sounding molds and ailments and how to best purify oneself of them, opens with the laws regarding purity after giving birth, generally portraying birthing process as something dirty and vaguely sinful. The Jewish people were told to be fruitful and multiply. Women’s lack of obligation to time-bound mitzvoth is due to the wombs and constant connection to the movement of time and the universe. If it is our wombs, our femaleness, that makes us holy enough to not need time-bound mitzvoth to keep us connected to G-d, than it seems strange that giving birth – the most singularly female act I can think of – requires a sin offering. The purification process makes sense because clearly our ancestors generally had a great discomfort with any sort of blood, discharge, or just bodies in general.
But the sin offering? Niddah 31a of the Talmud says, “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was asked by his disciples: Why did the Torah ordain that a woman after childbirth should bring a sin offering? He replied: When she kneels in labor she swears impetuously that she will have no intercourse with her husband. The Torah, therefore, ordained that she should bring a sin offering [to atone for her false oath].” The JPS Study bible suggests that maybe “sin-offering” was a mistranslation, and the second sacrifice (with the burnt offering) being brought to the Temple after her days of blood purification should really be referred to as the “purification offering”. I think these are both cop outs. The text says:
Everywhere else, in our Torah, in our liturgy, any place I’ve ever seen the root chet-tet-aleph we translate it as some derivative of “sin”. We have sinned, sinful, sin offering. JPS cannot simply change the meaning when it is convenient. And I cannot find any justification in any of this wording for the presumption of what women say during labor. Furthermore, it is impossible to assume that all women say the same thing during labor. Because women are not interchangeable.
Which is why we are here today raising money and support for The National Council of Women’s Organizations. The NCWO is an umbrella organization for more than 200 non-profit groups, representing over 11 million members, working for gender equality around the world, in any capacity needed. There are groups such as Women for Women International which focus on financial aid for the female survivors of ethnic cleansing, allowing the widows of war to become self-sufficient (Maimonides highest level of giving). There are groups such as HealthyWomen providing, that’s right, women’s health, including prenatal and postnatal care, which is the same regardless of the baby’s gender. And is not treated as sinful. The importance of a large body organizing several smaller, more specified bodies, is that women – contrary to ancient belief – are not all the same. By supporting the NCWO, we are lending our voices and our checkbooks to a great number of issues plaguing women today, much like tza’arat plagued the gossips of the this week’s parasha. Interestingly, while the Torah used masculine pronouns when discussing the leprous lesions and the processes of purification, the G-dcast cartoon for this parasha depicted females. This may have been completely coincidental, but I’m inclined to feel that at least on some subconscious level, the authors or illustrators were making comment about women as the chronic gossipers, as the video primarily focuses on the assumption that the lesions were a punishment for lashon hara.
I digress, but for the purpose of pointing out the ongoing antifeminist themes of this week’s parasha. Even in a modern day commentary, written by a woman, women are being depicted as gossipers. Women are liars who swear falsely when giving birth. Women all give birth. Women are impure, such that even the most necessary act of nature, indeed a mitzvah to reproduce, is still seen as dirty, unclean, sinful. Just as we no longer have a Temple, Kohanim, or sin offerings of any kind, let us also work toward moving our society past the need for misogyny and fear of the female body. Amen.