May 2007

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Abigail Weinberg and her newborn daughter Hadassah Tikva Weinmartin. (Photo Steve Weinberg)

Living Judaism

When the Sacred Candle Casts a Laser Beam of Light
-- Rabbi Phyllis Berman

As we read from the Torah portion Tazria/Metzora, we confront some of the most difficult concepts in Torah -- and in life. For many years I felt horrified, offended, every single time we came across the words tah'hor and tahmay . In too many English translations those words have been translated as "pure" and "impure," or "clean" and "unclean," signifying that one is all good and one is all bad.

A few years ago, I began to get a whole different sense of these words.

The first eight verses (Lev. 12: 1-8) deal with what happens to a woman who has given birth to a male or a female child -- how much time in each case she is to be separated from the community as "tahmay," before she rejoins the community as "tah'hor."

Out of my experience as a mother, I remember very clearly that indeed there is a period of time right after you've given birth that you want and need to be separated from the community. Your community narrows down to the baby right in your arms and at your breast and for some period of time, there isn't another world except for that child.

Then I began to think about other moments in our lives when that kind of close focused attention happens as well: when we're lucky enough to fall in love; when we're taken over by the ru'ach hah-kodesh (holy spirit); when we're utterly captivated in a creative process.

So I began to think that indeed there are two different kinds of holiness. There is the holiness of such complete concentration and narrow focus — like a laser beam of light — that we can't look out into the larger world, and there is the holy glow of clarity sent everywhere by the seven-branched Menorah, where we are so at balance that we have a broader view.

Then I began to understand a little bit more about these words tah'hor and tahmay. I began to think that tah'hor are those holy times in our lives when the focus is broad, when we can see the whole picture, and tahmay is that holy time when the focus is narrow and we can see only that immediate matter that's right at hand for us.

(During the biblical era, people became tahmay after contact with a dead body, after sexual coupling, during menstruation, and during certain skin diseases — the subject of the rest of this Torah portion. In actual practice, becoming tahmay meant that the person did not enter the Temple area, the most communal and collective of all holy spaces, until going through a ritual of transmutation.)

Then I was troubled: Why is it that for a girl child we take 66 days and two weeks (80 days) and for a boy child we take 33 days and one week (forty days) to separate ourselves from the community?

In my own mothering experience, 80 days with a new child is about what I needed — perhaps what most mothers need — to make that bonding happen without feeling the obligations, the responsibilities, of the world at large.

But I wondered what happened in the nervousness of the male community when a male child was born: whether perhaps women and their sons were forced back into the broader community more quickly than might have been their preferred rhythm because the child was male.

Commentators on this passage have conventionally assumed that the normal time of separation was the forty days after birth of a boy, and have tried to explain the departure from normal after birth of a girl. But out of my new understanding of tah'hor and tahmay I saw that perhaps the real question was not "why is the isolation with a girl-child so long" but "why is the isolation with a boy-child so short?"

Not "are 80 days of separation a punishment or even a recognition of some special uncanniness arising from the birth of a birth-giver, a female child?" - but rather - "are 40 days of separation an abridgement of the more natural time?"

Notice that to reframe the question in this way not only requires being able to see female experience as normal experience, but also requires drawing on the life-experience of giving birth. And let us notice that from this new perspective we can more broadly reassess how in our own day to celebrate the sacred times that are tamay, as well as those that are tah'hor.

Rabbi Phyllis Berman was Summer Program director at Elat Chayyim retreat center from 1993 to 2003 and again in 2006. She is co-author of two books: A Time for Every Purpose under Heaven: The Jewish Life-Spiral as a Spiritual Path, and Tales of Tikkun: New Jewish Tales to Heal the Wounded World. She founded and directs the Riverside Language Program, a school for adult refugees and immigrants from all around the world.

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