The Bible Says What? ‘Women who have babies are unclean’

The Bible Says What? ‘Women who have babies are unclean’

Rabbi Danny Rich takes a controversial passage from Jewish texts and applies a Liberal Jewish response

Pregnant woman looks at a scan
Pregnant woman looks at a scan

 If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean.

The opening verses of Parashat Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) indicate that a mother who bears a son is ritually impure for an initial seven days and is excluded for a further period.

If she has a daughter the time period is doubled, presumably on the basis that it is assumed the daughter herself will bear a child in the future.

This is typical of the ancient Israelite world where bodily functions and illness were a cultic matter, overseen by the priesthood, and the source of some fear. But how can today’s Liberal Jew, with the benefit of modernity, science and medicine, begin to treat these Torah verses?

One possibility is that out of this bizarre ritual, we can appreciate the sense of reverence for the wondrous nature of birth.

Another is to look at childbirth in today’s world. In many societies it continues to be a moment of great physical danger.  And even in so-called developed nations, with modern and safe healthcare systems, it can still lead to discrimination – for example in employment.

In Torah times, ritual (but not hygienic) uncleanliness frequently led to temporary separation or exclusion from cultic arenas, if not the community as a whole.

In modern times, we need to ensure that access to maternity services should be a given and the birth of a child should be a moment of celebration for individual families and communities.

It should reinforce our commitment that these children will be raised in a society of which all can be proud and in which all can thrive.

  •  Rabbi Danny Rich is senior rabbi of Liberal Judaism
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