[Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman had this insight and wrote this Torah teaching. She is the lead co-author of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven on the Jewish life-cycle, author or co-author of many essays and books on Torah, and a spiritual director. – AW, editor]
By Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman
The Torah portion “Tazria” that we read this week begins (Lev. 12: 2-8) with the instruction that, when a woman gives birth to a male child, she's "excluded" from the community for 40 days because she's "tamei." But when she gives birth to a female child, she's excluded from the community for 80 days because she's "tamei". After that, she once again becomes "tahor."
Reading this, I think about my experience as a mother who gave birth first to a male child and later to a female child. I re-member that, in the early weeks after the birth of each baby, all of my energy was focused on getting to know and understand how to respond to the needs of this new being. I thought about how it takes at least 80 very intense days to get the rhythm of sleep and awakenessof feeding and interacting with a baby before a woman can actually understand what the baby is communicating and needing and is finally fluent/fluid enough to re-enter a life before baby.
The conventional understanding of that text has always focused on why the separation-time after the birth of a girl-child was twice as long – assuming that the time for birth of a male child was the norm.
But my memory of mothering made me flip the conventional understanding. Rather than the 80 days being an "anomaly,” perhaps the normal time from a mother’s standpoint was 80 days, and the "anomaly” was the shortening of the normal time needed for that bonding of mother and child, from 80 days to 40 days.
Why might this shortening have been imposed? Perhaps the male society worried that a male child, left "isolated" with his mother for more than 40 days would become too "feminized" whereas they were unconcerned about the female child being "isolated" with her mother for 80 days.
This way of thinking then led me to probe the actual meaning of "tamei" and "tahor" which has, since the time of the King James translation of the Chumash into English, been most often translated as "unclean" or "unpure" (tamei) and "clean" or "pure" (tahor). Instead, in considering those moments in life when we are completely consumed by something -- a new baby, a new love-making, a new creative development, sickness, death -- we naturally separate ourselves from the community. Then we can concentrate on that which demands our complete attention. We are "tamei" during a time of intense concentration on one aspect of our lives and separation from the other aspects.
At other times, we are able to focus on multiple concerns, balancing them all with relative ease. Then we are "tahor", able to hold multiple identities and tasks in and beyond our home and work lives.
Both "tamei" -- that intense laser beam of concentration -- and "tahor" -- that balance that enables us to be in and out of community fluidly as appropriate -- are holy ways of being at different times of our life. I believe these are the real meanings of these two terms that have been so poorly translated, with so much damage in particular to women, for so many hundreds of years.