Parashat Tazria-Metzora: Clean living

The law of ritual circumcision and the laws of ritual purity which involve a woman immersing herself in a mikve are at one and the same time among the most illogical of our laws.

tazria metzora 88 (photo credit: )
tazria metzora 88
(photo credit: )
"And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised" (Leviticus 12:3). The law of ritual circumcision and the laws of ritual purity which involve a woman immersing herself in a mikve (ritual bath) are at one and the same time among the most illogical of our laws but have nevertheless been maintained for thousands of years, despite foreign nations having persecuted us for keeping them. A careful study of the portion of Tazria will hopefully shed light on the meaning, the mystery and the magic of these sexually related rituals. I first wish to analyze a verse which seemingly has no connection to what precedes or follows it: after the Bible has informed us that when a woman bears a male child she will be ritually impure for seven days (Leviticus 12:1, 2), the following verse does not deal with the subsequent 33 days of ritual impurity; those 33 days are dealt with only two verses later (Leviticus 12:4). The very next verse informs us that "on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised" (Leviticus 12:3). Why have the law of circumcision in the very midst of the laws of a woman's status of purity upon her giving birth? It hardly seems to belong! The second question deals with the order of the chapters. Chapter 12 deals with ritual purity and impurity as a result of childbirth as we have seen. Chapter 15 deals with the different kinds of seminal emissions which emerge from a male and the different kinds of blood emissions which emerge from a female, emissions which are also connected to reproduction and generally arise as a result of a sexual act between the couple. In the midst of these two biblical discussions, which involve ritual impurity and impurity surrounding reproduction, come two chapters right in the middle - Chapters 13 and 14 - which deal with tzara'at, usually translated as leprosy but which certainly refers to a discoloration and degeneration of the skin which causes the individual to look like a walking corpse. Why bring tzara'at in the midst of a discussion on reproduction? In Rav J.B. Soloveitchik's most important work entitled Family Redeemed, my revered teacher interprets the opening chapters of Genesis as a crucial lesson to humanity concerning the spiritual potential as well as the destructive danger of the sexual act. Indeed, the classical commentator Rashi understands the fruit of knowledge of good and evil as having injected within human nature libido, eroticism and lust rather than the expression of love and the reproductive powers which were initially embedded in human nature. Sigmund Freud sees the serpent as a phallic symbol and "eating" is often found in the Bible as a metaphor for engaging in sex. From this perspective, the sin of having partaken of the forbidden fruit is the sin of sexual lust which can often separate sex from the sacred institution of matrimony, from a natural expression of affection between two individuals who are committed to a shared life and to the establishment of a family. It is fascinating that the punishments for having eaten the fruit are related to reproduction: "And to the woman [who initiated the transgression according to the biblical account] He said, 'I will greatly multiply your pain and travail in pregnancy and with pain shall you bring forth children…'" (Genesis 3:16). Even more to the point, the most fundamental penalty for having tasted of the forbidden fruit is death, which plagues men and women alike: "But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat; for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:17). The sexual act was meant to give not only unity and joy to the couple but also to bestow continued life through the gift of reproduction. Tragically the misuse of sex and its disengagement from love, marriage and family can lead to death inducing diseases such as AIDS. I would argue that this is precisely why tzara'at, or the living death which it symbolizes, appears in the Bible in the midst of its discussion of reproduction and the normative processes of seminal emissions and menstrual blood which are necessary by-products of the glory of reproduction. Tragically, the life-force which is granted by God through the sexual organs can often degenerate into decay and death when those very sexual organs are misused. I will also submit that this is precisely why the commandment of circumcision comes right before the biblical establishment of a large number of days of purity (33 after the birth of a male and 66 after the birth of a female) no matter what blood may emerge from the woman's body. The much larger number of days of purity attest to the great miracle of childbirth - which is always a heartbeat away from death for every anxious parent until the healthy baby emerges and emits its first cry (and this accounts for the initial days of ritual impurity) - but which results in new life and the continuation of the family line, giving the greatest degree of satisfaction that a human being can ever experience. Such glories of reproduction are only possible if the male will learn to limit his sexual activity to being within the institution of marriage and will recognize the sanctity of sex as well as its pleasures. Placing the Divine mark upon the male sexual organ with the performance of the commandment of circumcision establishes this ideal of sanctity. The sacredness of the woman's body is similarly expressed when she immerses herself in a mikve prior to resuming sexual relations with her husband each month and even makes a blessing to God while still unclothed within the ritual waters which symbolize life and birth and future. Hence, the most meaningful blessing which I know is intoned during the marriage ceremony: "Blessed are You O Lord our God King of the Universe, who sanctifies his nation Israel by means of the nuptial canopy and the sanctity of marriage." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.