Fitting In Judaism: Commentary on Parashiyyot Tazri’a-Metzora 5783

By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary


Sensitive content notice: This week’s commentary discusses miscarriage.


New York City was a happening place then—as it continues to be—and, when I lived there, the city never lacked exceptional guest lecturers at the schools I either passed on the street or attended as a student. My rabbinical school classmates and I were especially excited when we learned that the Jewish Theological Seminary was soon to host Dr. Ruth Calderon, who had recently risen to fame as the first person ever to teach Talmud to the Israeli Knesset (Parliament). A newly elected Member of Knesset and a dedicated instructor of Jewish texts to a predominantly secular Israeli audience, Dr. Calderon had rightfully earned a reputation as a gamechanger in both religion and politics. Though my fellow audience members awaited Dr. Calderon’s talk on “Building Bridges Among Jews” with great anticipation, Dr. Calderon cut short her own words of wisdom when she noticed one attendee suffering from a medical emergency. Inspiring as Dr. Calderon’s philosophy proved to be that night, she announced to the assembled that anything she had prepared to say was simply less important than our communal responsibility to care of those suffering right in front of us. The evening ended abruptly.

Just as the Book of Ecclesiastes states that “עֵ֣ת לָטַ֔עַת וְעֵ֖ת לַעֲק֥וֹר נָטֽוּעַ” (“there is a time to plant, but there is [also] a time to uproot that which is planted”) (3:2)—we must regularly question whether we are living in ‘normal’ times. Do we exist in a time when we can conduct our business as usual, or do we inhabit a moment when we must pause our usual ongoings? Do we have the privilege to stop, to reflect, to meditate? Or is this an hour of anxiety that prevents us from enjoying any luxuries?

Featuring the Torah’s most concentrated concern for questions of purity and impurity, the Book of Leviticus overwhelmingly explores matters that demand of us the privilege to have both time and space to worry about otherworldly realities. Many of us coexist with obstacles that prevent us from enjoying the finest fruits of our tradition. Whether it is due to our intellect, our hearing status, our abilities, our finances, our responsibilities to others, or our physical or mental health—none of us can truly have it all physically or spiritually. There will always be experiences and truths beyond our reach. The totality of the Jewish religion is more than any single human can digest, and Leviticus often is hard to swallow.

Cultic laws open this week’s double-portion of Tazri’a-Metzora as Leviticus 12 instructs Israelite mothers in several laws related to giving birth to a child. These women are restricted from touching sacred objects for several days and are required to offer specific sacrifices. Although Leviticus acknowledges these women through ritual law and actions, the Torah’s text here makes no reference to the emotional—or physical—wellbeing of any of the people involved. The rabbis, heirs to the Hebrew Bible, recognized that the Torah insufficiently addressed just a few of the mundane worries of the new parents, to say the least. It is for this reason that Sifra—the earliest extensive rabbinic commentary on the Book of Leviticus—interjected that Jewish law should have better articulated that giving birth can result in not only new life but sometimes a miscarriage. Sifra thus stipulates:


.יכול המפלת כמין דגים וחגבים ושקצים ורמשים תהא טמא? תלמוד לומר “זכר” – מה זה מיוחד שיש בו מצורת האדם, יצאו אלו שאין בהם מצורת האדם

Is it possible that the woman who miscarries—[producing a child who looks] like some sort of fish or grasshoppers or creeping creatures or crawling animals—should be [rendered] impure? The [Torah] has come to teach, [by] speaking of a “male” child. Just as a [male person] who is uniquely assigned [to ritual functions] must be [recognizably] of human form—those [miscarried babies] who are not [recognizably] of human form have been excluded [from the categories of babies whose births render their mothers impure]. (Sifra, Tazri’a, Parashat HaYoledet 1:7.)


This rabbinic interpolation—that no impurity is imparted to the mother if the miscarried baby does not look human—is unique to Sifra. The Mishnah, edited circa 225 C.E., offers an alternative to Sifra’s teaching here and claims that the birthing of miscarried babies leads the new mothers to become impure “אם יש עמהם דם” (“if there is blood with them”) (Bekhorot 8:1, Niddah 3:2, and Kereytot 1:5). The condition is worded ambiguously—suggesting that the mother will become impure from a non-human-looking miscarried baby if either the miscarried baby had blood on the inside or if the birthing of the miscarried baby was accompanied by the release of blood. Either way though, it seems almost inevitable that a miscarried baby would be born with “blood with them” (“עמהם דם”). In other words, the Mishnah recognized no exceptions from the Levitical laws of impurity and sacrifices among the mothers of these miscarried babies. The Mishnah strived to include the mothers of miscarried babies alongside the other mothers of the Israelite nation, counting all potential mothers as having undergone a major lifecycle event—but can these ritual laws feel meaningful to all mothers of miscarried children? Offering a different angle, the authors of Sifra temporarily relieved grieving mothers from the burden of Leviticus’ sacrificial rites and laws of impurity. Times of mourning keep us far from certain religious proclivities—so much so that different traditions of Jewish mourning prohibit certain mourners from reciting publicly certain prayers, wearing tefillin on specific mornings, and attending certain lifecycle celebrations.

It is a blessing to live a long enough life to experience calm, free time, free space, and free thinking—to know peace. Inasmuch as Judaism, a way of life, offers us a rich language of rituals that endow us with feeling the blessings of the religion’s structure—we can only feel Judaism’s blessings when our life circumstances allow us the clarity of mind when we can count our blessings. There may be times when our lives are not built to fit in Judaism’s rituals and blessings, and it is an additional blessing that our tradition internally recognizes that the tradition doesn’t always meet our needs. As heirs to rabbinic Judaism, we each are invited though to discover which Jewish rituals, prayers, teachings, and practices fit our lives and enhance our human experience.

No matter what esoteric ideas in Judaism might feel distant to us in any given moment, Judaism ultimately is a religion that compels us above all to emulate God by seeking compassion—and that is something we all can fit into our lives.




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