The Sanctity Of Family And Childbirth
Tue, 03/25/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 6:59 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 12:1-13:59;
Exodus 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46:18
Havdalah: 7:59 p.m.

This week’s reading is not only difficult because of its subject matter but also because of the strange order of the verses and chapters.

The first question arises from a verse that seemingly has no connection to what precedes or follows it. After the Torah informs us that when a woman bears a male child she will be ritually impure for seven days [Leviticus: 12:2], the following verse does not deal with the subsequent days of ritual purity, which she is allowed to enjoy no matter what her physical state may be.  Instead, that comes two verses later [Lev.  12:4]. In between, the Bible informs us, “on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” [Lev. 12:3]. Why place the law of circumcision in the midst of the laws of a woman’s status upon giving birth?

The second question deals with the order of the chapters. Chapter 12 deals with ritual purity and impurity because of childbirth, as we have seen. Chapter 15 deals with the different kinds of male seminal emissions and the different kinds of female blood emissions that are also connected to reproduction because of a sexual act between the couple. In the midst of these two biblical discussions, come two chapters 13 and 14, which deal with tzara’at,  usually translated as “leprosy” but that actually refer to a discoloration and degeneration of the skin, which cause the individual to look like a walking corpse. Why bring in tzara’at to a discussion on reproduction?

In Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik’s important work “Family Redeemed,” my revered teacher interprets the opening chapters of Genesis as a lesson concerning the spiritual potential and the destructive danger of the sexual act. 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 partaking of the forbidden fruit is the sin of sexual lust, which can often separate sex from the sacred institution of matrimony — the expression of affection between two individuals committed to a shared life and the establishment of a family.

It is fascinating that the punishments for eating the fruit are related to reproduction: “And to the woman [who initiated the transgression] 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, for 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” [Gen. 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.

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 seminal emissions and menstrual blood, necessary byproducts of reproduction. Tragically, the life force, which is granted by God through the sexual organs, can often degenerate into decay and death when those sexual organs are misused.

I will also submit that this is precisely why the commandment of circumcision on the eighth day comes right before the biblical establishment of a large number of days of purity (33 days after the birth of a male and 66 days after the birth of a female) no matter what blood may emerge from the woman’s body. The much larger number of days attests to the great miracle of childbirth, which is always a heartbeat away from death for every anxious parent until the healthy baby emerges and gives its first cry.  The birthing mother’s days of ritual impurity counterbalance new life and the continuation of the family line, giving the greatest degree of satisfaction that a human being can experience.

Such glories are only and ideally possible within the institution of marriage and a recognition of the sanctity of sex as well as its pleasures. Placing the Divine mark upon the male sexual organ with the performance of the mitzvah of circumcision establishes this ideal of sanctity. The sacredness of the woman’s body is similarly expressed when she immerses herself in a mikveh prior to resuming sexual relations with her husband each month and even makes a blessing to God while still unclothed within the ritual waters symbolizing life, birth, and future.

Hence, the most meaningful blessing that 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.”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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