Women’s voices and reproductive health care

By Rabbi Nancy Kasten
Parashat Tazria

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, declares a woman to be impure for seven days if she bears a male and for 14 days if she bears a female. After that she can’t touch anything holy for the period she is presumed to continue to bleed: 33 days if her newborn is male, 66 days if her child is female. Once she ceases to bleed, she is required to bring both a burnt offering and a sin offering to the priest, so he can offer it for her as her atonement. Only then is she deemed purified or tehora.

There is no explanation in the Torah of why the gender of a newborn determines the length of time their mother is impure or why the length of time a postpartum woman is prohibited from contact with the holy is twice as long when she bears a female child as it is when she bears a male.

Nor do we find any rationale for requiring a new mother to make a sin offering. There is much speculation about the transgression a woman commits during labor and childbirth. The Babylonian Talmud suggests that the requirement protects all woman against an oath that they imagine some women might make:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai was asked by his disciples: Why did the Torah ordain that a woman bring a sacrifice after childbirth? He replied, “When she kneels in labor, she swears in the heat of the moment that she will never again have intercourse with her husband. The Torah, therefore, ordained that she should bring a sacrifice.”

This passage illustrates a challenge Jews have when it comes to the Oral Torah. Women rarely speak for themselves in the rabbinic world. Rabbi Shimon’s mother, wife or daughter might have postulated that a woman in labor in ancient Israel was worried about how to obtain a lamb for her burnt offering. We know those were very expensive, since Leviticus 12:8 allows women without the resources for a lamb to bring a turtledove or pigeon instead. But bringing an inferior offering might have been humiliating for the new mother. Who wants to admit that they can’t afford the best for God? Perhaps a postpartum woman had to atone for the sin of thinking about her economic and social status at the very moment when she should have been singularly focused on a successful birth. After all, childbirth is dangerous. The health and the life of mother and child are always at risk, even today.

Fortunately, we live in a time when women can and do interpret the Torah in ways that reflect the actual experience of giving birth, as well as other experiences unique to women, enriching our study of scripture and giving it eternal life.

Burnt offerings and sin offerings became irrelevant with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, systems and structures that render women sinful and deserving of punishment for their reproductive capability are anything but obsolete. We see them reflected today in laws that regulate women’s health care, including birth control and abortion. Just as the rabbis of the Talmud claimed they were protecting women by requiring them to go to the trouble and expense of acquiring a sin offering, some of today’s leaders and elected officials here in the U.S. think that they must control women’s reproductive choices for the good of women and for the good of the country.

As Jews, this should frighten us. Right now, we have a law in Texas that makes a person who counsels a woman contemplating an abortion liable for a minimum fine of $10,000. This means, for example, that if a pregnant person goes to her rabbi and is informed that Jewish law permits or requires an abortion in her circumstance, the rabbi could be sued. Doctors are also prohibited from performing almost all abortions, so a Jewish physician who feels obligated by religion and profession to perform an abortion is restricted from doing so by law. Abortion restrictions are gateway laws intended to make it easier to restrict birth control, in vitro fertilization and other reproductive health care.

Mainstream Jewish thought does not adhere to the notion that a woman is rendered impure or sinful by her body. Rather than reestablishing or reinforcing a society that penalizes women for their capacity to bear children, the Jewish community should be protecting women from political ideologies that limit a woman’s ability to protect her health and well-being. Parashat Tazria is a product of its time. Our interpretation of it is a product of ours.

Rabbi Nancy Kasten is chief relationship officer for Faith Commons and a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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