Next week I’ll publicly chant Torah for the first time on Shabbat. Being an adult convert, my chanting debut wasn’t at the age of 13, and there won’t be any pomp when I chant later this month, either. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a bar mitzvah ceremony that places the ceremony over the worship service that’s hosting it. Besides, I’ve been bar mitzvah, or a son of the commandments (i.e. religiously of age), since the moment I converted. So this will just be a Jew chanting.
Still, it’s exciting and scary at the same time. For three years, I’ve tried to learn trope (the musical notation of the Torah), but it never really took hold until my cantor pigeon-holed me in January and said, “I think it’s time.” She was right. Nothing like a deadline to finally drag you to the finish line. I spent two weeks reviewing my trope, and another two weeks learning my portion, word-for-word, in Hebrew. Having done that first, finally putting the two together was actually pretty easy–my biggest surprise.
I learned from a borrowed Tikkun–a book containing the entire text of the Hebrew bible in two columns: the friendly column with vowels marks, trope marks, and punctuation (like you see at the top of this post); and the scary column with nothing but a giant run-on sea of Hebrew text–exactly like you’d see in a Torah scroll. You have no idea how sick Ryan is of seeing my pick up this book. (Especially his ears.)
Below is a video of my trope practice in English and in Hebrew. My portion following so close to Purim, I intend to begin with the English. I think it helps the meaning make more sense for people who don’t understand Hebrew. In the video, I’m translating and chanting directly from the scary column. I made one mistake, early on, in the English half. If you’re a real chanting geek, see if you can find it. Beneath the video is the d’var (“word”, essentially the sermon from a Jewish service) that I intend to give afterwards.
My portion–as you can easily find out from the English that I chant in the video–can be offensive to modern ears. It’s Tazria–literally, conceived–otherwise known as Vayikra (Leviticus) 12. It says that a woman giving birth to a female is ritually impure twice as long as she would be if she gave birth to a male. Scroll down if you want me to try to make sense out of that.
(Can’t see this video in your news feed? Watch it here.)
What’s up with that?
I know. I know. Firstly, though, because this year’s Hebrew calendar had a leap month, Shabbat Tazria has some special things about it. First of all, it is also Shabbat Hachodesh, the Jewish Sabbath before the month of Nissan–the month of Passover. That means there’s an additional Torah portion: Sh’mot (Exodus) 12:1-20. There’s not much point in chanting it, though, because its 20 verses sum up into exactly five words: Start getting ready for Passover!
Secondly, because it’s Shabbat Hachodesh, the portion normally chanted together with Tazria–Metzora, regarding the state of impurity called tzara’at (long ago incorrectly translated as leprosy even though the state can afflict inanimate objects, as well)–is left for the following week. I’m fine with that. Tazria, on its own, is a lot to unpack.
So back to the original question–what the heck is up with Tazria? The portion discloses the Jewish law that governed in ancient times how a woman removed ritual impurity from herself after childbirth. Ancient Israelites believed that impurity could arise from the loss of life force, and that life force was lost whenever blood or semen was lost from the body. The acts that led to the state of impurity were not impure in any way. It was simply their occurrence that gave rise to impurity. After the wholesomeness of childbirth, to remove the impurity that arose from the loss of blood during and after giving birth, a woman brought an offering to be burned in the ancient Temple, as well as an additional offering to remove the impurity that arose at the Temple from her simply having approached its entrance to bring the first offering.
Sacrificial rituals to remove impurity similar to these make up the majority of Vayikra and apply to men and women, both. They’re bloody and unsavory to modern ears, but they weren’t offensive to our ancestors. The real questions are these:
- Why would a woman be impure for a longer period for giving birth to a female instead of a male?
- And, why did our ancestors take these rituals so very much to heart in the first place?
As I see it, there’s a secret in Vayikra hiding in plain sight. Modern Jews scoff at the nonsensical nature of the sacrifices and the blood rituals. Yet many of us engage in rituals and practices that our ancestors (and many of the people we share the planet with, including some other Jews) might find equally illogical, silly, or offensive. Looked at from the outside, a burnt offering makes no more sense than not mixing milk and meat, saying blessings over food, clearing out chametz on Pesach, or circumcision.
What’s important is that the rituals that survived from ancient times or that Rabbinic Judaism created or altered serve a meaningful function. The sense that they make isn’t important. The importance is that they bridge a critically important gap between us and God. At its most basic, Vayikra is the Abraham Joshua Heschel of the books of the Hebrew bible. It is, in no uncertain terms, a manual for managing and responding to the radical awe of those moments in life when our only recourse is to stop in our tracks, refrain from our ordinary activities, and let the situation of our lives–good or bad–sink in.
The moments when we pause because life has given us no other choice but to sit with our overwhelm, gratitude, shock, discomfort, or wonder? When the idea of not stopping and witnessing what had just happened in our lives is beyond our ability? When there’s nothing else we can do but ponder that which is greater than we are–and grope for the words to verbalize our feelings or the rituals to memorialize them? When to the core of our beings we are shaken and can only hope that there’s a constant living presence somewhere that has our backs? When the simple acts of eating and drinking and walking and seeing natural beauty take our breath away?
That’s Vayikra. Many Jews live in this gratitude-abundant space in some manner or another their entire lives and never recognize that these moments are in a very literal way Leviticus without all that pesky blood. We’re not so different from our ancestors in this respect. We still grope for God by stopping and taking stock–which is the exactly desired effect of the state of impurity riven through Vayikra that kept our ancestors temporarily from engaging in their own daily activities.
We are substantially different from our forebears, though, when it comes to the idea that a female birth would engender (pun intended) twice the duration of impurity that a male birth would. Our sages and modern commentators, both, have written circles around themselves trying to make Tazria make sense, or at least trying to make it seem less offensive, with ideas like:
- Ancient Jews believed female births made afterbirth blood flow longer;
- Female births have a worse effect on a woman’s body than do male births;
- Female babies, themselves, may have their own flow of blood that creates impurity; and
- This is the way God wants it and that’s that.
Google for d’vars about Tazria and you’ll find a lot of liberal Jews expressing angst and upset over Tazria and interpretations of the portion by Jewish sages, along with guilt about wanting to unpack the portion differently on their own. Yet in Judaism, wrestling with God in disagreement is a fundamental element of our faith. And if that’s so–and it is–then the idea that we can’t disagree with our sages would elevate them to the status of idols–things we have placed on a status equal to or above God. And idolatry is, of course, the greatest sin a Jew can engage in.
There is no reason to fear disagreeing with our sages, whether you’re a rank-and-file Jew or a rabbi (no matter what the modern gatekeepers of Rabbinic Judaism in any of its forms might otherwise suggest). It’s actually your right as a Jew to do that. Moreover, if you reject the idea that the mitzvot (commandments) are binding, you are immediately in disagreement with the sages. Which means that merely identifying yourself as a Reform Jew by definition means that you are in a permanent state of disagreement with them.
And if that’s the case, why fret about calling Tazria as you see it?
It is possible that our forebears truly believed female births to be harder on the mother. Or that they believed that giving birth to another being capable of bringing life into the world was a greater cause for pausing and being awestruck than merely giving birth to a male who would never have the ability to add life to the world directly. It’s also possible that the priestly tribe who interpreted and administered the laws regarding impurity were misogynistic, or simply looking for additional opportunities to bring food into the Temple (since the priests were fed the majority of the offerings.)
Optimistic view or pessimistic view on Tazria, take your pick. Neither one really matters. In the absence of a standing Temple to which to actually bring offerings, it’s been impossible to follow the Torah Hayoledet (“law of the birthing woman”) for 2,000 years. And even if it were still possible, I have no doubt that most Reform Jews wouldn’t follow it, anyway. Which is exactly as it should be.
In Reform Judaism, we allow ourselves to come to mitzvot and ritual as they speak to us individually (or really, as the Eternal speaks to us through them)–and to walk away from mitzvot and ritual that doesn’t have relevance for us as individuals. That applies to Temple-based practices which we can no longer undertake just as much as it applies to practices we still can accomplish in the modern world. So feel free to make your own mind up about Tazria.
The more important take-away is that at one time the practices in Tazria and Vayikra as a whole had real meaning for Jews. That meaning hasn’t changed, even though the way we choose to access that meaning is different now. Whether guided by Jewish law or our own inner sense of Adonai, we have all had our eyes opened and our minds stunned into silence by the circumstances of our lives. We have all just been led to a point of pausing far beyond the boundaries of our daily lives and hoped to find something there that would help us to feel less alone.
The books of the Hebrew bible are named in Hebrew by the first words they contain. The first words of what we know in English as Leviticus, Vayikra, mean “And he called.” The ‘he’ is merely a pronoun necessitated by Hebrew grammar. The meaning really is, “And God called.”
And God calling is the point of Vayikra. Every time a mother gives birth to a child, that’s Vayikra. Every time a marriage get is signed–or dissolved–that’s Vayikra. Every time a Jew pauses and says a blessing before eating, that’s Vayikra. Every time a community sits shiva with the bereaved, that’s Vayikra.
Every time a Jew chants Torah for the first time in front of their community, that’s Vayikra.
For all our intellect and all our modernity, at those moments of awe the best we can do is simply to try not to get lost there. To search for a rudder to steer ourselves back to our normal lives. That rudder is ritual. It needn’t be ancient ritual. It needn’t even make sense. It just needs to help us re-affirm that our lives matter. That we matter.
To ourselves, and to that which is greater than we are.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.