Torah Rooted in the Real: Narrative Halakhah, Part 1
Tazria is a parashah that people often find more repelling than compelling. Why so many words dedicated to bodily emissions and the intricate appearance of skin diseases? This Torah of the body touches on the relationship between halakhah and individuals’ embodied experiences. We might want to believe there could be a place for religious connection in these messy and vulnerable aspects of life, but we may also be wary. Why would I want to interface with a religious system that doesn’t actually know me or my body? This week and next, our quest is for an approach to Torah and religious practice that offers the possibility of feeling seen for the reality of our own experience. Rather than compromising our sense of self, an embodied encounter with Torah and halakhah must strengthen our sense of dignity and agency.
A plain reading of Vayikra suggests that certain bodily emissions push us away from God’s presence by creating a status of impurity. When a person has certain discharges, illnesses, or encounters with death, they cannot enter the mishkan (tabernacle). Elsewhere we see that some diseases result in exclusion from the camp entirely.1 The fact that a sin offering must be brought after birth, certain bodily emissions, and illnesses also inflects these with a valence of disgust and guilt.
Yet, these apparently “gross” experiences take up a lot of verbiage in the Torah. Midrash wonders why God would spend so many words expounding upon these parts of life we might rather ignore, and arrives at a surprising conclusion:
ויקרא רבה יט:ג
רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר יִצְחָק פָּתַר קְרָיָא בְּפָרָשִׁיּוֹתֶיהָ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה, אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁנִּרְאוֹת כְּאִלּוּ הֵן כְּעוּרוֹת וּשְׁחוֹרוֹת
לְאָמְרָן בָּרַבִּים, כְּגוֹן הִלְכוֹת זִיבָה וּנְגָעִים נִדָּה וְיוֹלֶדֶת, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא הֲרֵי הֵן עֲרֵבוֹת עָלַי, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר
(מלאכי ג, ד): "וְעָרְבָה לַה' מִנְחַת יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלִָם וגו'"...
Vayikra Rabbah 19:3
R. Shmuel bar Yitzhak interpreted the verses2 to be about [certain] sections of Torah. Even though they seem disgusting and dark3 to say them in public—such as the laws of emissions, skin afflictions, menstruation, and giving birth—said the Holy Blessed One, “These are pleasing to Me.” As it is said, “The gift of Yehudah and Yerushalayim is pleasing to God” (Malakhi 3:4)…
The Torah seems to waste words in the many details of these “ugly” passages. In fact, midrash reframes our perspective and teaches that God finds these topics sweet and beautiful. That is why this is all elucidated at such length.4
This sentiment is not merely a local comment on a small section of the Torah: it becomes a primary justification for why God gave Torah to humanity. God wanted to give the Torah to us, in our very human bodies. A trope in midrash describes how the angels resisted this, and asserted that the pure and holy Torah should only be given to pure and holy angels. But God retorted that Torah is designed for humanity, highlighting specific embodied laws, such as: “This is the law of a metzora” (Leviticus 14:2), “When a woman gives birth” (12:2), “A woman who has a discharge” 15:25).5 Rather than being so gross they were barely fit to print, the passages in Tazria about bodily emissions and illness form the bedrock for justifying why God gave us Torah. God wanted to be in relationship with beings who have unpredictable discharges, diseases and even death. Lest one conclude that this is meant derisively, that our imperfect human nature requires the remedial help that Torah offers, the midrash specifically frames this as humanity being “more perfect” than angels in our capacities to fulfill Torah. Those embodied and contingent aspects of ourselves that we might have thought of as impairing our relationship with God are actually assets.6
How do these two approaches sit side by side: our messy bodily experiences as a source of alienation and distance from God and religious community, and simultaneously the bedrock of our relationship with God and Torah?7 We can understand the ritual of the korban hattat as helping us navigate these opposing approaches. According to biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, the korban hattat one brings after giving birth or after healing from tzara’at has nothing to do with sin or guilt, but is about reorienting after a destabilizing event.8 Birth and illness can be destabilizing, often leading to a sense of being cut off from the regular rhythms of community and can disrupt our relationship with God or prior theological conceptions. The korban hattat is a framework for re-entry, representing a path towards social and spiritual reintegration.
In a similar vein, Ramban explains that the korban hattat is about healing.9 The process of birth is a physical trauma, it is entirely destabilizing to usual bodily rhythms. He sees the korban as a “kofer nefesh (a redemption for one’s life), expressing our desire to be healed by God who “heals all flesh and acts wondrously.” For someone who has just given birth the korban is a prayer to regain nothing less than herself.
Today, we do not have the korban hattat as a means for weaving the experience of birth or illness into a reframed relationship with God, but we still need to do this work. What can help us notice and confront the destabilizing aspects of these intense bodily experiences that might make us feel distant from God and from others? The power of articulation—finding words for the twists and turns of these journeys, like God writing out all of these details in the Torah—is one important step to find our way from repulsion or anger towards acceptance, and even love.
When I think of what it means to do this work of reintegration, I think back to Shabbat Tazria of 2014, when I had Shabbat lunch at the home of feminist scholar Bonna Haberman, z’’l.10 To probe its depths, Bonna pulled out two books: first, the Torah, and second, her birth journal. The point wasn’t to discount the first with the second. The point was that the one invited and beckoned the other. Her narrative of birth was uncomfortable and bloody, while also deeply moving. It was a window into this time outside of time—the uncertainty and excited anticipation, fears and trust, and definitely strength. Parashat Tazria was an invitation to treat all of that as Torah.
The messy parts of ourselves and our experiences can anchor a continually evolving, honest relationship with God, rather than push us away. Yes, we might encounter bumpiness—or even feel derailed—when the contingencies of embodied life interrupt our regular rhythms and relationships. But these raw narratives are beloved to God; they are literally the stuff of Torah.
3 The midrash hinges on the phrase “שחורות כעורב - black like a raven,” which is reinterpreted to mean that what is apparently black/dark becomes sweet or beloved (ערב). The authors of the midrash assume that “black” is an undesirable color, an assumption that reflects a racist stance. As “black” and “white” continue to be used metaphorically to represent “bad” and “good,” respectively, it is important for us to be aware of how our own language can continue to participate in practices that have caused real harm to real people.
4 One part of midrash focuses on the extent to which the passage goes to great length to describe zav/zavah for male and female bodies separately, even though they could have in theory been described more concisely.
5 Midrash Tehillim (Buber) Mizmor 8:2: “כך אמר הקב"ה אין התורה מתקיימת אצלכם, לפי שאין פריה ורביה ביניכם, ולא טומאה, ולא מיתה וחולי, אלא כלכם קדושים, ובתורה כתיב "אדם כי ימות באהל", "זאת תהיה תורת המצורע", "אשה כי תזריע", "ואשה כי יזוב", "את זה תאכלו", "את זה לא תאכלו", לכך נאמר ולא תמצא בארץ החיים.”
6 Midrash Tehillim continues: “ר' נחמיה בשם ר' יהודה אומר: משל לאדם שהיה לו בן, והיה חסר אצבע אחת, והולך אביו ללמדו סריקה שירקיריס וכל עיסקה של אומנות. אותה אומנות צריכה לכלן אצבעות. אחר ימים בא אביו אצלו, אמר לו: למה לא למדת לבני אומנות זו? אמר ליה: אומנות זו צריכה כל האצבעות, ובנך חסר אצבע אחת, ואתה מבקש שילמוד בנך אומנות סריקוס שירקיריס?”
The angels are “missing a finger” when it comes to practicing Torah: they are just not able to do it. Note that other versions of this midrash point to other features that distinguish humans from angels such as our emotions and passions or our possibility to doubt God. See Pesikta Rabbati Piska 25 and Talmud Bavli Shabbat 88b-89a.
7 The intuition that discharge and illness are a source of religious alienation continues to emerge in later halakhic sources. R. Moshe Isserles refers to a custom in Ashkenazic communities that prohibited being in the synagogue during menstruation and for the full period of purification after birth (OH 88, and Be’er Heteiv). Yet, there was also significant push back against this custom that treated these bodily experiences as a source of marginalization from sacred spaces. This shows the same dynamic in the first midrash we saw—an instinct that these parts of ourselves would be undesirable to God, and then a strong deflection of that stance.
9 Ramban on Leviticus 12:7: “והקריבו לפני ה' וכפר עליה וטהרה ממקור דמיה - יאמר שתקריב כופר נפשה לפני ה' שתטהר ממקור דמיה, כי האשה בלדתה תהיה לה מעין נרפס ומקור משחת, ואחרי עמדה בימי הנקיון, או בימי יצירת הולד לזכר או לנקבה, תביא כופר נפשה שיעמוד מקורה ושתטהר, כי השם יתעלה רופא כל בשר ומפליא לעשות:”