On finding new and reaffirming meaning in ancient texts

Rabbi Dale Schreiber

By Rabbi Dale Schreiber

Seventeen years ago, our daughter invited me to become a bat mitzvah with her. In the world I grew up in, bat mitzvah was not a choice. This lifecycle was something reserved for my brothers, not for their older sisters. Our family embraced the transformations in Judaism that allowed for covenanting ceremonies for daughters and egalitarian treatment in Jewish ritual life. Our daughter was named on the eighth day of her life in a home-centered ceremony. One of the first Conservative female rabbinic interns was a participant as our rabbi created a ceremony honoring this new life with the same kavod (weightiness, honor, glory) of the home-based circumcision ceremonies we arranged for our sons.

Thirteen years later our daughter was assigned the double portion Tazria-Metzora; portions that strike fear and dread into parents’ hearts as they are the juicy, descriptive Torah of all the disqualifications and impurities of childbirth, bodily emissions, and contagious afflictions affecting skin, clothing, buildings and other material goods.

Our daughter built her commentary on Metzora, which was highly relevant for a 12-year old girl. The rabbis likened the word Metzora to sins of speech, a topic taking up volumes in Jewish ethical literature. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs writes that Judaism is a sustained meditation about the power of words to heal or to harm. Our daughter could speak to her reality about life in middle school and the ways in which girls used words as weapons to destroy relationships. She was able to speak about the important words in her life: responsibility and respect when it came to her friends.

I had a different struggle. Seventeen years ago I thought Tazria, beginning with issues of childbirth, circumcision and ritual disqualification, was telling me that girls were somehow half as good as boys. After all the text says: “And God said to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelites that when a woman has conceived and bears a son, she shall circumcise him on the eighth day. She will remain in seclusion for 40 days. If she has a daughter she shall remain in seclusion for twice as long.” After a great deal of text wrestling I came to understand that Torah recognized that the birth of each child required an essential time for integrating a new life and reframing a family vision. The laws of confinement were different for boys and girls because communal norms and expectations were different for men and women. Boys learned how to be from a circle of men and girls learned about being female from the interior of their courtyards, bathhouses and weaving circles. The differences between confinements signify that male and female roles were taught from the heart of a Jewish home at the very beginning of life.

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This year I find new meaning in Tazria and it affirms the beauty and brilliance of our legacy. There it is, nestled between a portion that speaks of the ancient rules for responsible eating, expiation and living at the beginning of the long trek through time as worthy partners in creation and the Torah of Metzora — a visible and contagious affliction affecting skin, clothing, buildings and material goods. The word Tazria is derived from the Hebrew ‘seed’ or ‘sow’ and implies generativity, procreation and lineage. The closest form of this word is found in the first chapter of Genesis where the earth is (mazriah) bringing forth life with built in mechanisms for preserving the future of each species. The earth is an active agent. The subtle Torah of Tazria reveals that women are active agents in determining the gender of their offspring. Rabbinic commentaries understood that women were somehow responsible for the gender of their offspring. The text undergoes a transformation when the translation moves from “when a woman is impregnated” to what science now tells us about how reproduction works. I hear the Torah of Tazria saying, “when a woman’s biology predisposes her to bring forth life and the life is male, there is a responsibility to circumcise him on the eighth day. When the life she brings forth is female, her responsibility is to nourish her so that in time, she too will bring forth life as part of an eternal promise.”

The evidence that boys and girls are equal in God’s eyes can be found in the identical offerings required at the end of a new mother’s confinement. The offerings reflected the awesome nature of birth-giving and signaled she was now ready to follow rituals assigned to women. We are no longer bound to the same cultural norms. The birth of each child, however, should continue to mandate the precious time it takes to re-create family. Family is at the heart of Judaism. When a woman brings forth life, she, like the earth, is an active agent in her own sacred story and our human destiny rests in how well we care for the life-givers in our communities.