A few weeks ago, I warned my Twitter followers of the upcoming discomfort that would be found in Vayikra or Leviticus. I warned it is a book that alienates many, and can cause pain for those who have struggled hard to reconcile and accept their identities.
I recognize that the struggle to affirm one’s identity in any context is difficult. Feeling so strongly in oneself to live true to a personal sense of self, and supporting those that wish to do the same, is applause-worthy. How much more so in communities—so frequently religious—where facets of one’s identity are shunned; where members find themselves cut off from the rest for living counter to what is considered acceptable. Where fathers kill their sons for loving men, daughters are silenced for speaking out, transgender teens beaten for struggling to live a life they feel most comfortable in, and fear of retaliation for silent affirmations haunt one’s consciousness. Vayikra is a book that justifies it all in so many minds. It has become book of oppressors.
But the Torah is the book of the oppressed. It is the book to shine hope in dark hours, and to assist in inserting light into the dark places of our lives. Through studying it, we grow more inquisitive; posing deep, probing questions not only about the text, but our own lives. I live convinced we can find means of redeeming the text and finding its relevance to our own lives; that our text may be reclaimed.
With that said, reading into the first few lines of this week’s parsha, Tazria, I was struck by a woman’s obligation to bring sacrifice following childbirth. A woman, writes the Torah, becomes tamei when she gives birth. She has come, as our sages write, close to death; she has encountered great pain and suffering, yet through it she has drawn life, and the process has physiologically altered her. A mother withdraws, rests, and appreciates the time she spends with her child. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes an extensive post on this on her blog that I absolutely recommend reading. It illuminates the beauty of this time mother spends with child, and this difficult to describe change in state. The Torah continues however, illuminating that a woman remains tamei until she brings a sin offering. Childbirth, I can only imagine, is a truly humbling and inspirational experience. Complete with pain, fear, and satisfaction in bringing life, the experience is a miracle. It is amazing, and encapsulates the essence of the human experience in the blink of an eye. How then can such an experience be considered a sin? Why must a woman bring such an offering for having fulfilled one of our most miraculous of mitzvot?
In search of an answer, I turned to the sources—only to feel disappointed. Referring directly to the portion, we find Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai in the Talmud, sharing a particularly odd story. Upon his students asking him to explain why a woman brings a sin offering, he tells them, when a woman is giving birth, the pain becomes so much that she swears impetuously that she will have no intercourse with her husband. This, Simeon says, is a reason to obligate that a woman bring sacrifice. This explanation feels flat. It is delivered in such a way that feels insulting not only to women, but to the very nature of childbearing. From the joy some women take in childbearing, to the postpartum depression others experience, we recognize that childbirth is a deeply personal and individual experience for women. Simeon ben Yochai’s explanation rests on the presumption that every woman regrets her actions during the course of childbirth; that every woman vows never to have another child, a transgression we are told. But not every woman experiences life in the same way. Not every woman curses her husband, and decides in the moment to never have another child. It is insulting to presume that every woman does—or even did. And furthermore, the mere utterance of an unwitnessed oath should not bring about an obligation to bring a sin offering.
The sources seem to bring only further disappointment with Rabbi Abarbanel and Rabbeinu B’Chayei bringing us perhaps the worst of explanations. Abarbanel explains, a woman goes through great pain in childbirth, and that according to the Talmud, only those who are guilty of wrongdoing suffer pain, therefore, the rabbi concludes, the woman must have done something wrong and brings the sin offering to atone for whatever wrong led her to have a painful childbirth. In writing this, Abarbanel not only fails to accept that some human experiences are painful, but that suffering is blind; that the righteous can suffer just as those who have wronged. Our tradition is committed to mitigating suffering, it cannot simply be explained away so quickly. Rabbeinu B’Chayei brings us an explanation relating to the concept of “original sin.” Here, the rabbi says, the woman brings a sin-offering to atone for Eve’s sin of having eaten from the Tree of Life. This explanation seems to ignore the basic principle in our tradition of free-will. We teach our children they come into the world b’tzelem elohim, created in the image of G-d, free to forge their own paths. They do not suffer for the “sins of their ancestors,” and furthermore we cannot begin to atone for the actions of others. That is part of one’s personal relationship with G-d, and for us to bring an offering and fulfill the rites associated with it for someone else, would be to neglect our own relationship.
So why does a woman bring a sin-offering? I simply do not know. Perhaps it can be my lack of knowledge on the rites of Temple Judaism, or perhaps I have yet to receive the proper explanation. Whatever the case, I am lost. The words may no longer be practiced in Rabbinic Judaism today, but one cannot help but ask the question of what it means. Why is it there? Why does a woman bring a sin-offering? I cannot help but feel at a loss for words; searching for an answer which brings peace to my pain. Yet the answers I have read, bring only more pain.
To relieve this pain, I let out an answer of my own.
Our tradition looks to chet, sin, as something unavoidable. We begin Vayikra with a long list of sacrificial offerings; prescriptions of what is to be brought to the Temple for various transgressions. Already, the Torah recognizes the unavoidable nature of chet; the text assures us—and followers of the sacrifice-based cult—that we will transgress the laws outlined, but there are means of making right, of making teshuvah. After all, the high holiday of Yom Kippur encapsulates this theme of teshuvah, quite literally honoring our ability to ask for forgiveness and work to repair the damage we have caused through our mistakes. Our world is imperfect, the Shofar blasts, we must try our best to repair it, but it is nonetheless imperfect. Yom Kippur assures us chet is not the end of the world, we recite liturgy calling for our names to be sealed in The Book of Life, and we understand that there is so much more life to be lived; that we need to forgive ourselves for our own personal mistakes. And that so long as we stay near to the Torah, we needn’t obsess over the small transgressions we make, because we will make right by those we have harmed.
How beautiful then that a woman should bring sacrifice to the Temple following the birth of her child. Set in isolation with her newborn for weeks she has tried her hardest to be a mother. She has feared for the vulnerable life she has carried, terrified she will make a misstep. With little sleep, and an endless supply of terrorizing thoughts of what might happen, she simply wants to do what is right; create the perfect world for her child. But in bringing a sin-offering, a korban chatet, she elevates the birth of her child to that of a high holiday. She makes an offering and conjures the memories of Yom Kippur and the offering at the Temple. And it reminds her: our world is imperfect; we are imperfect. The very act is a recognition of this imperfection. Bringing it does not grant her “forgiveness” for her transgressions, but rather forces her to forgive herself; to release herself from the impossible expectations she has struggled to hold herself to. To accept that mistakes and missteps are to come—if they have not come already. She has come from a place of such excruciating pain, of near death, and yet she has brought life through her pain. It is a moment of beauty, that in its commanding to bring sacrifice, Torah has emphasized; has elevated. Torah calls upon her to slow down, to take a moment, and to recognize her own strength. To remind her: mistakes happen, but we can repair them. Our tradition is steeped in the necessity to recognize the miraculous. To recall it is a mitzvah, but so is to live it.
So many of the practices outlined in Vayikra no longer apply in the absence of a Temple. A woman’s obligation to bring an offering is among them, but the text nonetheless remains an object of our tradition; to be read, probed, and honored. We live our lives, honoring the miraculous through ritual and word of Torah, but not all can bring themselves to honor a text which—to them—feels flat and othering. While the text remains true to the letter, there are means of redeeming our texts so that all may honor them, and feel proud doing so. We can recall who has been neglected from the conversation; whose readings have all too often been overlooked. The commentaries of old all too often exclude the voices of the very people most affected. By giving those who have historically been unable to speak a chance to do so, we can redeem our text by breathing fresh life into it. These redemptions of text are not desecrations, but honors bestowed upon them. They keep the text alive, and encourage others to engage with words that otherwise would fall flat. After all, so many of our readings and interpretations are—like our world—imperfect.