Torah Portion of the Week: The Dynamics of Impurity

Ariel Seri-Levi
"Mother Berthe Holding Her Baby," Mary Cassatt, 1900.
"Mother Berthe Holding Her Baby," Mary Cassatt, 1900.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Ariel Seri-Levi

Is giving birth to a child a sin? That seems to be the message of Parashat Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59), which opens with the law concerning women who have just had a baby: “If a woman be delivered, and bear a man-child, then she shall be unclean seven days… And when the days of her purification are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt-offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtle-dove, for a purification-offering, unto the door of the tent of meeting, unto the priest. And he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the fountain of her blood” (Leviticus 12:2-7).

Two elements in this law seem to suggest that a woman who has given birth is a sinner: She must present a “hatat” offering (usually translated as “sin-offering”), and the priest who offers her sacrifice “mekhapper” (usually translated as “atones”) for her. If she must present an offering and requires atonement, the ostensible conclusion is that she has sinned.

However, there is no evidence in the Bible that childbirth is a sin – quite the contrary: The first commandment, directed toward all humanity, is, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Even if God’s words to humanity regarding reproduction are intended as a blessing, not a commandment, there is no reason to assume that there is anything sinful about childbirth.

So, what is the new mother’s sin? One possible answer appears in the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Nida (page 31a): “His students asked Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai: ‘Why does the Torah say that a new mother must offer a sacrifice?’ He replied: ‘When a woman is about to give birth, she defiantly swears she will never have relations with her husband again. That is why the Torah commands her to bring an offering.’”

According to Rabbi Shimon, labor pains cause the woman to swear she will never again fall pregnant. After giving birth, she must bring a sacrificial offering to atone for her vow. This creative solution is an attempt to avoid defining childbirth as a sin and to instead focus on the sin of declaring opposition to conceiving a child again.

Whereas Rabbi Shimon’s answer as to how a new mother can sin is in the form of a midrash, a literal reading of the biblical text casts doubt on the underlying assumption of the question itself – namely, that it is possible to recognize that the presentation of a hatat (sin) offering and the act of “kappara” (atonement) have nothing to do with sin.

In his book, “Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics,” the late Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom explains the role of the hatat offering and the significance of atonement. Commission of sins, bodily secretions and various biological phenomena give rise to impurity – a dynamic force that in essence adheres to the sanctuary and all it contains, which can endanger God’s continued presence both there and in Israel’s midst. For this reason, the Torah prohibits the new mother from coming into contact with anything holy during the period immediately following childbirth: “she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification be fulfilled” (Lev. 12:4).

But, even if she remains at home, her ritual impurity adheres to the sanctuary and can accumulate there. The impurity must be purged from the sanctuary to ensure that God will continue to reside there. The disinfectant the priest uses to remove the impurity from the altar – not from the new mother – is the blood of the hatat-offering, which is sprinkled not on the person bringing the offering but on the altar.

We can therefore understand that the Hebrew word for this offering, “hatat,” is linked not to sin (het) but to disinfection (hitui), and therefore should be translated not as “sin-offering” but as “purification-offering.” Disinfection is also referred to as atonement – kippur¸ whose root in Hebrew is kaf-peh-resh. In Akkadian, that root means “disinfection” or “wiping away.” Thus the meaning of the atonement in the purification-offering is removal of the impurity, of a kind of filth.

Ritually impure persons must disinfect themselves and remove from any holy entity the impurity they create – but that does not mean that they have sinned. Therefore, the answer to the question of how a new mother has sinned is that she has not sinned at all; childbirth gives rise to ritual impurity, and prohibitions and obligations are imposed on her due to that impurity.

Ostensibly, the idea that childbirth creates impurity casts a negative light on this event. However, just as the new mother’s purification-offering and cleaning do not necessarily imply that she has sinned, neither is impurity seen as unacceptable or prohibited, in and of itself. God commands the priests: “Thus shall ye separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness, when they defile my tabernacle that is in the midst of them” (Lev. 15:31). Impurity can lead to death but that death results not from the impurity itself, but from the impurity’s adherence to the holy space.

The many laws governing ritual purity reflect the fact that, in the biblical era, impurity was not perceived as an abstract legal principle or an ancient, incomprehensible custom but rather as an actual phenomenon existing in the real world. Milgrom, who explains extensively this understanding of impurity as something tangible, attempts to deal with the gap between modern and biblical perceptions. Instead of comparing the Bible to what is accepted today, he compares it to what was acceptable in biblical times, thus following in the footsteps of Yehezkel Kaufmann, a scholar of biblical theology and author of “The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile.”

According to Milgrom, in the cultures amid which the Bible developed, impurity was considered not only dynamic but also demonic. It was perceived not as a lifeless substance, but rather as a living, harmful and lethal force capable of threatening both mortals and even the gods. Mortals intervened in struggles among the gods through magical practices that they believed could have a favorable impact on metaphysical forces.

Kaufman and Milgrom see the Bible as a monotheistic manifesto that declared war on the surrounding cultures’ polytheistic beliefs. The demonic perception of ritual impurity runs counter to monotheism and one could therefore expect it to be opposed by the Bible. However, the biblical legislators did not attempt to abolish impurity. Abolishment is impossible because no reasonable person in that era would ever have questioned that impurity existed, that it was a fact of life; all that could be done was to offer a different interpretation of it.

The biblical reinterpretation, argues Milgrom, recognized the dynamic nature of impurity but rejected its demonic nature. The biblical perception of impurity denies the power attributed to it in ancient Near Eastern culture, and reduces its status from a living entity to an inanimate object. The Bible transforms impurity from a supernatural phenomenon to a natural one, whose patterns of action can be predicted and which can be effectively dealt with.

In the biblical laws of impurity, new mothers and other ritually impure individuals are not in danger, do not endanger others, are not sinners and are not condemned. The Bible’s negation of most of the significance attributed to impurity by other cultures was a very important cultural act.

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