Tamei: What Does Childbirth Have In Common With Leprosy? | Aleph Beta

What Does Childbirth Have In Common With Leprosy?

What Does Childbirth Have In Common With Leprosy?


Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

In this double parsha podcast, Tazria-Metzora, we learn about two different ways that one can became “tamei,” spiritually impure:

  1. By giving birth to a child
  2. By contracting leprosy.

I bet you never expected to see those two things on a list together! How do these radically different ways of becoming "tamei" actually connect? Are we meant to believe that the miracle of childbirth is similar to a plague of deformity? What could childbirth possibly have to do with developing a rash?

Join Rabbi Fohrman and Imu as they reexamine the text of these parshas, and find thematic connections to explain how these strange laws are actually connected. Once you explore the deeper meaning behind these ancient laws of impurity, you'll never think of "tamei" the same way again.


Imu: Hello and welcome back to another episode of Parsha Lab. I am Imu Shalev.

Rabbi Fohrman: I am David Fohrman.

Understanding Tamei

Imu: And this week's parashah or I should say parashiyot are Tazri'a-Metzora. Parashat Tazri'a-Metzora covers the laws of purification and impure already of a woman who gives birth, of a metzora – of someone who contracts tzara'at (leprosy), of the home that contracts leprosy, of some interesting spiritual sickness or malady called zav and those people who become impure or, I should say tamei, since maybe impure is an imprecise definition of that word.

Rabbi Fohrman: Actually, Imu if I can just interrupt in for one second, I'm going to try to lob you a Parsha Experiment style question. For those of you who are not yet absolutely familiar with Parsha Experiment. Parsha Experiment is, again, one of our premier products in Aleph Beta. A brainchild of Imu and David Block.

Imu: I'd say it's the best product Aleph Beta has ever done.

Rabbi Fohrman: Totally the best product of Aleph Beta. Hands down. It was an ambitious epic quest to see the story behind the Five Books of Moses and basically to weave together strands to help the reader, kind of, follow the evolving story even when there seems to be no story; such as in The Book of Leviticus where it just seems to be a whole bunch of laws. What's the underlying story, how do these laws weave together? But, be that as it may, here's my question for you. How would you see Tazri'a and Metzora being related to each other? Why do you think it is that these laws come together?

Again, Imu kind of introduced to you that the main topics really of these two parashiyot are purification rituals for two kinds of people. A woman who gives birth that is the idea of Tazri'a and then in Metzora, as well as in much of Parashat Tazri'a, the laws of leprosy and the laws of tzara'at. We hear a great deal about how the person who has leprosy or his home or his clothes, how all those attain purification too.

So aside from the obvious purification connection, is there anything else – some sort of commonality – why these two laws should be grouped together?

Tamei: The Biblical Meaning of Leprosy and Childbirth

Imu: There's a few ways I can answer that question. There is the way that I wanted to lead this particular episode which I'm actually going to skip, since I'm going to stay more localized. Since it sounds like you want me to connect those two despair pieces. There's a second way which leans on some of the work we did in Parsha Experiment where we suggested that tum'ah, the best definition of tum'ah, is it's some sort of brush with mortality that causes one to focus from a clear, spiritual perspective to a more muddled one when they confront death.

In some sense, we argue that there's commonality between a leper – he basically has some disease that causes him to confront his own mortality. He dies a certain, sort of, death. There's some pieces you focused on, Rabbi Fohrman, that talk about a leper as experiencing a communal, sort of death. And a woman who gives birth who also has a brush with mortality in the sense that, you know, first of all giving birth is a very dangerous thing to do; especially way back before modern medicine. A lot of women would be lost in childbirth, a lot of babies would be lost in childbirth. The whole business is quite dangerous, but there's also even a spiritual loss – some loss of life where a mother who hosted a life inside of her, even though she's doing something very joyful, something very great in giving birth to a new baby, she loses a life that was once in her. So those are some dots of commonality.

Rabbi Fohrman: Just to, kind of, summarize what you seem to be saying is that the notion of impurity seems to be associated with a brush with mortality. Death – a corpse is the avi avot hatum'ah, the great-grandfather – the great-granddaddy of all impurity that we experience is the impurity of a corpse and everything else is somehow derivative of death.

In this world there's life and, of course, there's death and there's this other world, but in this world you don't focus on that and when you, kind of, focus on that and respond to death there's something eerie, spooky, Halloween-ish, impurity-like about that whole experience in this world and it requires some sort of rejuvenation and purification. So Imu was saying that when it comes to Metzora there are death aspects. There's a, kind of, living death and then in some sort of way a woman has a brush with mortality as well in giving birth not just because it's such a difficult and painful and life threatening experience but also because she's losing the life within her and therefore those are kind of mortality –

Imu: That was the second place I was going to go. I wasn't going to the third place.

Word Play: What Connects Childbirth and Leprosy?

Rabbi Fohrman: And you didn't go to the third place which is a great big mystery. So let me go to a third place which is really just a deepening of those first two places. First of all, there seems to be an interesting word play with Tazri'a and Metzora, doesn't there?

If you think about the prefix for the words the taf and the mem that would seem to suggest a, kind of, subject objects sort of thing. A woman who's tazri'a, which is to say who conceives so that has woman as subject. Now, when you have a mem as a prefix, like a metzora, then you have the idea of person as, sort of, object as someone who has been acted upon and become a certain way. In this case, he's become tzaru'a. A metzora has become inflicted with tzora'at. So you have sort of a subject object distinction between the woman who is tazri'a; who is the subject and the object; the person who is acted upon, the recipient of the becoming tzaru'a.

However, the really cool thing, Imu, it struck as just the word play. Think about Tazri'a and think about Metzora. Take out the prefix, the mem and the taf and look at the similarity there, in terms of the essential letters that remain.

Imu: Zayin-Reish-Ayin and Tzadi-Reish-Ayin.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right and if you think about zayin and tzadi look how close zayin and tzadi are phonetically. The za and the tza. All a tza is, in the tzaddi, is a harsher form of the za. All you do is add the harsh t into the z and you get the tzadi.

I think, Imu, I don't know if we ever talked about this, but I remember a dear colleague or mentor or rabbi of mine growing up was Rabbi Eisemann, in Baltimore, who used to have a very fancy sounding deal that he called the biconsonantal root theory. Did I ever tell you about the biconsonantal root theory?

Imu: You didn't.

Rabbi Fohrman: Well, Rabbi Eisemann comes up with this theory that the biconsonantal root that all Hebrew letters, even though they look they have three letter roots, really have two letter roots. The first two letters of the root give a basic idea and the third letter, somehow, differentiates the idea and creates the distinction between them all. But there's a certain fundamental commonality between all words with the first two letters.

So, for example, he has his pei-reish example. So he shows how remarkably if you look at all the pei-reish words they all seem to be derivative of a certain basic idea. Pera, with an aleph, which means wild. Parad, with a daled, which means to separate. Parah, which mean to be fruitful. Paraz, which means to scatter. Paratz, which means to explode.

By the way, just even there you see the difference between paraz which is softer with a zayin, which means to scatter and the paratz form with a tzaddi. The only difference is just the tzaddi and all of a sudden it means to explode, which is just a harsher form of scattering.

His idea is basically the pei-reish is all about one becoming many, but there's many different ways to do it. If I'm wild so one becomes many. If I separate, parad, so one become many.

So bring that all back to Metzora, I'm wondering is there a similar kind of commonality between "ishah ki tazri'ah" and the metzora. In other words, could the woman who's tazri'a, who conceives and has a child, could she be experiencing a softer form as a subject of something that the leper experiences as an object in harsher form. Right? That's the taf becoming the mem; the subject becoming the object and instead of tazri'a, metzora. It's a harsher form.

Imu, I go back to the expression of leprosy, at the end of Beha'alotcha with Miriam.

Imu: That's where I wanted to take you.

Miriam's Leprosy in the Bible

Rabbi Fohrman: It's a, sort of, wrinkle that you get in the meaning of leprosy, out of that language with Miriam. You see where I'm going here? Do you remember, if I remember correctly, Miriam is stricken with leprosy and when Moses prays to God for her to be healed –

Imu: Aaron says this to Moses – pleading with Moses.

Rabbi Fohrman: Aaron says this, yes. So what does Aaron say?

Imu: He says, "Bi adoni al na tasheit aleinu chatat asher no'alnu v'asher chatanu. Al na tehi kameit asher b'tzeito me'rechem imo vayachel chatzi b'saro," don't place upon us a sin or a chatat in that we have acted foolishly and we have sinned and therefore don't let her be like a dead person or a stillborn who has emerged from the womb of her mother with half of her flesh consumed.

Rabbi Fohrman: And it's a gory image, but the notion is that the whiteness that is so characteristic of leprosy is associated here with the whiteness of a stillborn baby who, you know, God forbid the baby is stillborn because its flesh was opened up in the womb causing the blood to drain out and you have just have the white, lifeless skin of the stillborn corpse. That's how Aaron characterizes leprosy and major, in a larger sense, leprosy is a kind of death. What kind of living death? It's as if you are stillborn, the way Aaron thinks about it.

Now, fascinatingly think about the connection between Tazri'a and Metzora. Here you have this woman and she gives birth as subjects successfully, but experiences a kind of impurity because of the loss of this child that was once a part of her and is now a separate being and that's a very happy event, but nevertheless it's this brush with mortality. And then there's this harsher version of that. Not the zayin version of "ishah ki tazri'a," a woman who conceives, but a metzora, someone who experiences this as object, who's being born, but it's a harsh experience of birth and instead of being born nicely it's a tzadi rather than a zayin and it's this being born, but being born like a stillborn and somehow even though you're still alive you have this very intense brush with mortality known as leprosy.

Imu: Just to foreshadow a little bit. Aaron's comparison of Miriam with leprosy to, he doesn't compare her to a dead person, right? He says "Al na tehi kameit," so don't let her be as one who is dead. He, kind of, gives a specific kind of death; a stillborn. Which is, sort of, it's an awful, awful, horrible kind of death, but it's a little bit of an in between death. This is a birth death. One who is born and is dead which is a person who has leprosy is experiencing a kind of death where they're neither alive nor dead.

Rabbi Fohrman: Right. So it's almost like Parashat Tazri'a and Metzora is taking us to the line of birth and death; two different kinds of births deaths. There's a happy kind of birth death which is any successful birth. If you think about where postpartum depression comes psychologically, it comes through loss. Here is this being that was once a part of me that's no longer a part of me and I'm very happy that there's a separate being, but he or she is separate and there is loss, there is death, there's separation, there's pain as part of that even though it's fundamentally a happy event. Hence, it's a kind of birth death. Birth but loss, death and another kind of birth death, not the tazri'a, not the woman who experiences birth death as a subject, but someone who experiences it as object in a harsher kind of way. The birth death, as you would put it, of being alive and yet having this stillborn birth – failed birth – quality to your existence which is this overlay of leprosy that you need to somehow rid yourself of or be purified or be rehabilitated from.

I just think that's, kind of, fascinating.

Imu: Yeah, I know, my wheels are turning. That's a really interesting place to take it.

Rabbi Fohrman, can I just ask you to clarify a little bit. How does this help us understand a little bit of a woman's experience in having lost while she gives birth, right, in that happy occasion? How does understanding the connection to a leper, sort of, help us understand that a little bit?

What Does Childbirth and Leprosy Mean in the Bible?

Rabbi Fohrman: A disclaimer, I'm not a woman so I cannot speak here from personal experience only vicarious experience and seeing – in having gone through childbirth with my own children.

Imu: How many times?

Rabbi Fohrman: Seven times. We have seven of these guys. But, yeah, just a sense of loss, right? Which is that if you think about the experience of the leper, one of the things that the leper does is the leper, kind of, experiences a sort of mourning for himself. Normally, when you're dead, you don't get to mourn.

One thing my father, may his memory be blessed, always used to say is you know people think like it's so terrible death for mourners because the mourners lost someone they love so much, but think about how bad it is for the guy who dies. The mourners just lost one person, the guy who dies is losing everybody. It's just the guy who dies isn't around to mourn, but if they could mourn the mourning would be very intense. Here, I believe, there's the hatzaru'a – I'm reading now from Verse 45, in Leviticus 13 – "v'hatzaru'a asher bo hanega begadav yihiyu frumim v'rosho yihiyeh paru'a."

Where do you have that sort of language? His clothes are going to be torn and his head is going to be uncovered. This is the language of mourning. So there's a sense of loss which the leper is experiencing as a loss within himself and then just the idea that there's a sense of loss in childbirth. As wonderful as childbirth is, any time oneness becomes twoness there's something sad about that, no matter how happy that is. And to some extent, that kind of oneness is something which we always seek to recapture. When the Bible talks about marriage, "al ken ya'azov ish et aviv v'et imo v'davak b'ishto," the marriage is certain kind of Freudian replacement for mother on the part of the man.

That's why a man will leave behind his mother and father and cling to wife. He senses that he came from mother and is seeking that oneness with her, but he can't go back into the womb. To do so would be to die, but that oneness is compelling. It's compelling for a man and the man's solution of it is ultimately to find another oneness that came from him or to reunite with another oneness that came from him, which is woman. Woman was taken from him.

Therefore, he leaves behind mother and father in the language of Genesis and clings to his wife, leaving one unity to come to another. That unity of mother and child is compelling not just for the child who wants to come back to mother but for mother who wants to come back to child and that, I think, is the birth-death quality or the death quality of birth. That's what it is. No matter how happy this is there is a kind of loss. The impureness surrounded the impurity that is a function of childbirth is a spiritual reflection of that sense of loss or, as you put it, that brush with mortality.

Imu: There's a lot that resonates for me in what it is you're saying and I, too, am not a woman, so we will give my resonance whatever credence it deserves. I wonder if the rituals of purity are meant to help one who perceives loss and who perceives oneness going into twoness to reconnect with oneness to some extent. Like, the idea of purity sort of giving you the time – and maybe even ritual – to remember some sort of elemental oneness, some sort of, you know, we're one with God or, you definitely feel, too, when you were one and then you have a kid; one becomes two.

I wonder if the purity rituals are meant to help us contemplate that to some extent, that that twoness is actually an illusion and that we're really all one. That's Item A that this makes me think, and Item B that it makes me think of is just a general thinking about parenting, in general. It's almost like a parent's job to facilitate good twoness. You're supposed to let go of your kid. You're supposed to have a Sabbath. You're not supposed to continue to control your kid and see them as one and yet, to some extent, there seems to be some sort of deeper elemental truth which is that you are one.

It feels kind of paradoxical. I'd even take the paradox even further – and maybe I shouldn't. Why do you have kids in the first place? You might think I'm going to be so spiritually pure and not bring twoness into the world and be one and not have a kid and yet there seems to be something good about it, too. That's what I find confusing here about impurity sometimes equals bad. I guess the question I'd put to you is should you avoid it? What's it for? What's this process of purity for?

Rethinking the Negative Connotations of Tamei

Rabbi Fohrman: I guess what I'm suggesting is that impurity is not necessarily as strange as it sounds despite the fact that we think of it with negative connotations. There's not always a function of badness. It's something which is neither bad nor good but a brush with mortality. In other words, if the theory is correct, then it's suggesting that birth-death, as you would put it, is a phenomenon that we, as humans, need to respond to spiritually and we respond to it by recognizing these kinds of spiritual states associated it.

There's a certain kind of impurity associated with it, but I'd say the good and the bad comes in the dichotomy between postpartum and the leper, which is that there's something celebratory and triumphant about postpartum and something bad and foreboding about the leper, which is really the difference between successful birth and stillborn. They both partake of the same notion of birth-death, but you can have a birth-death which is successful and wonderful, which is a successful experience of twoness, which comes with a sense of pain a loss, but in the larger picture of it, the pain and loss is subsidiary and is something to be celebrated. You know, hopefully, you get over the postpartum depression and hopefully, you get let go of it and you celebrate it.

It's almost like, you know, sometimes I say with Aleph Beta videos that, to me, the richest kind of ending to a video emotionally – and it's true with any movie – is a bittersweet ending. The bittersweet ending, sometimes the goodness of the ending is magnified, strange as it is, through its bittersweetness. Any kind of wonderfulness, to some extent, partakes of that bittersweet sort of birth-death quality. You know, the most romantic movie in the world, "Casablanca," has that sense of loss even as it's a wonderful, romantic movie and you root for these characters and yet, at the end, there is a sense of parting.

There is nobility in celebration and the sense of loss is subsidiary to that and the parting – you know, that's Shakespeare. "Parting is such sweet sorrow." That's one kind of birth-death and then there's the other kind of birth-death, where the bitterness is primary and the sweetness is secondary. Somehow it just feels bitter and that also is a certain kind of impurity to be dealt with.

The idea is that loss and death can pervade our experiences and be present in our experiences even when the experiences are happy ones and even when fundamentally we're celebrating, but there is still the sense of loss to be reckoned with. I think, as a parent, with, you have all these wonderful daughters and then you think to yourself, my goodness, one day I'm going to have to give away these wonderful daughters in marriage.

In a certain way, you imagine what that day would be like and thinking about your own marriage and thinking about what that would be to experience your kid getting married. It just feels happier with your kid as a parent and yet there would be a sense of loss. There'd be wiping away that tear as you walk your kid down to the chuppah (wedding canopy). There's some other man that's going to take over the role of man in their life and there's loss around that even as you are celebrating.

The Spiritual Meaning of Childbirth and Leprosy in the BIble

I think the Torah's notion of impurity associated with both postpartum and the leper is almost an act of compassion to the mother and recognition of what she is going through that, as celebrated as it is, she still has to deal with that aspect of impurity, with that aspect of loss. Everyone is celebrating, but for her, there is a sense of loss. That's part of the reality and her reality isn't complete without honoring and dealing with that sense of loss, just the same way that the person, you know, there's no impurity with walking, no law of impurity with walking your kid down to the wedding canopy, but it's also a kind of birth-death. In order to relate to that honestly, you have to be able to experience the bittersweet aspect of it in order for the sweetness to really be complete.

Imu: I think these are very powerful thoughts. What's lingering for me is why. Why do we have these rituals of impurity and purity? What are they for? Rabbi Fohrman has a theory that these things don't necessarily have, we're not meant to know the full meaning of it. These are God's rules. We have rules like physics and gravity that God keeps so that we can live, and we have to keep the rules when we around God's Tabernacle, around His home, that He requires for us to keep.

I think there might be more to it and a giant commercial for Parsha Experiment today, I would encourage those of you who are interested to take a look at what Rabbi David Block and I did. In Parsha Experiment, we make an attempt at an answer and I wonder, I actually think, a lot of the amazing things Rabbi Fohrman added today help us to navigate what I think the rituals of impurity and purity are meant to do for our perspective and for our relationship with God, our relationship with the world at large. So if I may be so brazen as to suggest to you guys to check it out, please do. Thank you, everyone, for joining us and join us next week.

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