“Mommy, does it hurt to give birth?” my son once asked me with deep concern in his eyes. “It definitely hurts,” I answered him, “but it’s worth the hurt, because at the end a baby is born.” He stared at me a moment, as if not quite sure what to do with this newfound information, and then finally added, “I bet it also hurt for me to come out of you, so it’s good that you hugged me afterward.”
A hug. An embrace. That’s all I wanted after giving birth. To feel that there is someone there with me amid the raging storm of emotions. To feel a space of validation for the crazy experience I just went through – the amazing ability of my body to create life.
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Tazria, opens with a discussion surrounding a birthing mother and what must be done with a woman following childbirth.
T’meah. Translated as: impure, defiled, or uncleaned. That is how the Torah defines a woman after childbirth. The Torah then goes on to describe how the impure woman must be distanced from the community.
As I read the words of the Torah portion, my whole body cries out. A woman after childbirth – in pain, hurting, filled with excitement, elated with a new child and also just simply exhausted – and all the Torah can talk about is her impurity and how she needs to be distanced. And this impurity isn’t just a distant memory from days of yore. Even today, according to Halakhah (Jewish law), a woman is not allowed to come into physical contact with her partner following childbirth. She is distanced from an embrace from the very person who is supposed to be there to support her.
If she gives birth to a son, she is impure for seven days and must further be distanced from the kodesh (holy spaces) for an additional thirty days. If she gives birth to a daughter, her impurity is doubled. She is impure for fourteen days, and must stay away from the kodesh for sixty days. Here, from the very beginning of life, we find gender-based discrimination. Daughters render one impure for even longer. The birth of a daughter is considered lesser than the birth of a son.
Following her period of impurity, the mother must bring a sin offering. “On the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering.” (Leviticus 12:6). In other words, the presumption is that every mother is a sinner, that in the birth itself there is an act of sin. The question that all the traditional commentators ask is: what exactly is the sin that takes place during childbirth? The answers range from the words the woman utters in childbirth cursing her husband to the need to understand the smallness of the human vis a vis God, as reflected in childbirth.
I think the answer is simple. There is no sin in childbirth. But there is fear. Fear of the power of birth. And the desire of the patriarchy to minimize the female power of this awesome moment. In childbirth, the female body does something that is almost beyond human, something divine. The female body brings life into the world. I think that men were afraid of that power. It is a power that they do not possess within themselves and over which they have no control. The feeling that I had after giving birth was of an amazing power to create words and I believe it is because of this that they distanced us from the kodesh – the holy spaces. They wanted to let us know that we are not all-powerful, but rather, actually, we are but sinners. To remind us that there is a priestly, male authority that is truly in charge. That there is a holiness in which we have no place.
We need to relate differently to women after childbirth. Instead of talking about defilement of the body, we need to recognize the miracle that our body performs in the very moment of childbirth. Instead of distance, fear and ostracization, we need a hug, physical contact, a circle of support. We need to be embraced.
Ayala Dekel is a teacher and educator at BINA