Childbirth and a New Understanding of Biblical Impurity - Torah portion Tazria-Metzora

Pregnant Phoenician goddess, c. 7th C BCE
This week's Torah portion opens with laws concerning childbirth and the ensuing status of impurity (tum'a) for the mother. One feature of these rules that begs explanation is why it should be that the duration of the mother's impurity should be twice as long following the birth of a girl (14 days, followed by an additional 66, for a total of 80 days) as for a boy (7 days, followed by 33, for a total of 40 days).

Really, there are several questions here:

1. Why should childbirth render the mother impure?
2. Why should the birth of a girl double the duration of impurity?

Which is all related to the meta-question:

3. What is the rationale for biblical impurity?

If we can answer the third question, perhaps we can understand the logic behind the first two.

The causes of biblical impurity

In order to explore the rationale, we first need to know the cases. What does the Torah view as imparting tum'a? Biblical impurity falls into three main categories, each of which has a number of subcategories:
  • Corpses
    • Human corpses
    • Certain animal carcasses
      • Incl. ashes of the Red Cow
  • Tzara'at affliction
    • Skin
    • Clothing
    • Walls of one's home
  • Genital discharges
    • Seminal emission
    • Abnormal discharges (zav, zava)
      • Incl. saliva of such a person (Lev 15:8)
    • Vaginal blood
      • Menstruation
      • Childbirth
These three categories are subject to the laws of impurity in all their intricacy - contagion, ablution (washing), laundering, waiting periods, isolation, etc. There is however an additional category which does not entail all the technical details usually associated with biblical impurity, but which the Torah nonetheless speaks about as producing tum'a:
  •  Cardinal transgressions
    • Idolatry (Lev 20:3)
    • Murder (Num 35:34)
    • Illicit sexuality (Lev 20:24-25)
The distinction between the previous categories and the last one is sometimes referred to as "ritual impurity" vs. "moral impurity" respectively. (See e.g. Jonathan Klawans, Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism, 2000.) Yes, a murderer may become ritually impure by touching a human corpse. Yes, illicit sexual relations may entail ritual impurity via seminal emission. But that's not the "tum'a" the Torah is referring to in these cases. Rather, it's that one who engages in these activities brings impurity to the land, to the Sanctuary, and is seen as desecrating God's name.

Note that according to Jacob Milgrom (Yale Anchor Bible, Leviticus, Vol I, pp. 269-70), certain more intense, prolonged impurities in the ritual category (such as zov, abnormal discharge) also have the power to cast impurity upon the Sanctuary from afar. But despite the "danger" it is seen as producing, which may in some ways be similar to "moral" impurity, it is understood in the Torah to be inadvertent and is discussed without the accompanying language of condemnation.

Translations and historical context

To avoid confusion and misconception in our discussion of biblical impurity, we would be well-served to be more conscious of the English translations we use, and to acknowledge the historical context of the Torah's concept of tum'a:

1. The words "impurity" and "uncleanness" are negative formulations of purity and cleanness. Tum'a however is not a negative formulation of tahara (purity). They are two different words entirely.

2. Often added to the translation "impurity" is the descriptive term "ritual" or "spiritual." These have very different connotations however. "Ritual" impurity implies a cultural convention, whereby for purposes of ritual life (ability to partake in certain activities, especially those involving religious sancta) a person has a no-go status. "Spiritual" impurity implies an unseen, nonphysical force or malaise which rests upon a person. One is a "status," the other a "thing." There is no question that tum'a involves a status with legal/social implications. The question is whether, from the Torah's perspective, it is also considered a "thing," and if so, what is the nature of that thing. The alternative to tum'a being a nonphysical "something" is that it is a purely symbolic concept. (The nonphysical and symbolic interpretations of impurity might be mapped onto the mystical and rational worldviews, respectively. See my comment at the end of this piece.)

3. For people living in the modern age, the tendency is to think of the Torah's impurity laws as something uniquely "Jewish." But far from existing in a vacuum, these laws had parallels across the ancient world, including the Egyptians, Hittites, Mesopotamians, the Sabeans of southern Arabia (see Maimonides' Guide, Ch 47), the Hindus, Greeks, Persians, and so on. These cultures share many of the contexts of biblical impurity such as childbirth, menstruation, scale disease (biblical tzara'at) and contact with corpses, as well as remedial actions such as washing and laundering. Point being, in order to determine what biblical impurity is about, it's important to know that the concept of impurity was ubiquitous at the time, and (where possible) to distinguish between global/Near Eastern conceptions of impurity and the Torah's concept.

Israelite impurity laws: de-paganized, non-personified

Let's start with the concept of impurity held in the Ancient Near East. Jacob Milgrom describes the ancient world as being concerned with demons. The deities in pagan religion are
"dependent on and influenced by the metadivine realm, that... spawns a multitude of malevolent and benevolent entities, and... if humans can tap into this realm they can acquire the magical power to coerce the gods to do their will" (Anchor, Leviticus, Vol I, p. 42, based on Y. Kaufmann). 
Anything widely regarded in the ancient world as a source of impurity, such as menstrual blood, was recognized as a "repository of demonic forces" (ibid. p. 766). Demons wrought disease, mental illness and death upon those people and places they entered.

This is the Torah's starting point. It recognized the fact of disease and death. It maintained that certain physical states and substances were considered "impure." But the Torah negated demons as the cause of these things, as independent forces which human beings must do magical rituals in order to placate and exorcise from themselves.

To return to our earlier point, the context of impurity in the ancient world was not merely one of "ritual" impurity. It was clearly grounded in the notion of "spiritual" impurity, and demonic spirits in particular. In contrast, there is no indication in the Torah text that the concept of tum'a has anything to do with demons or spirits. Thus it stands as a clear break from the rest of the ancient world.

Though one might fairly ask the question: Were demons in fact expunged from the biblical worldview? The Bible speaks of quasi-independent, destructive beings/spirits/angels, such as: the Satan, which stands as Israel's accuser; malachim ra'im, "evil emissaries," Ps 78:49; the malach ha-mashchit, "destroying emissary," II Sam 24:16; and of course the mashchit, "destroyer," which passed over the Israelite houses in Ex 12:23. Zechariah 13:2 mentions ruah ha-tum'a, the "spirit of impurity," which may be a reference to an actual spirit. (Certainly the rabbinic tradition is rife with references to shedim, as well as the concept of ruah ra'ah, "evil spirit.") Though in the biblical instances, these "beings" are clearly under divine control, which is counter to pagan theology.

The question is, what was left in the Torah's concept of impurity after the demonology was expunged? Was tum'a thought to be a "destructive emissary" albeit under God's control and purged by God's rituals rather than by magical incantation? Such a notion has no support whatsoever in the Torah text. However, the idea that biblical impurity was solely "symbolic," or merely a legal/ritual "status," does not speak to the reality of the ancient world either. Clearly, tum'a was perceived as a tangible, destructive power, albeit completely de-personified. It endangered the individual as well as the Sanctuary and sacred objects, and it threatened the maintenance of the divine presence among Israel.

This is evidenced by the fact that many of the biblical impurities stem from inadvertent, natural, and even desirable and vital activities of life, such as sexual relations. If tum'a was only a symbolic "bad," then it should not have been attached to such normal, necessary activities. This means it must have been understood as an inevitable "thing" to be encountered - and subsequently countered - in the world. Yes, it had its dangers, but aside from "moral impurity" such as idolatry and murder, normal "ritual impurity" was not a sign of sin. It was a natural part of life that had to be dealt with appropriately.

Of course one could posit, like Maimonides did in his Guide regarding sacrifices, that the laws of tum'a were a de-paganized concession to a people who could not let go of impurity-related taboos, being so ingrained in their consciousness and custom. In other words, the Torah knew that there was nothing - literally "no thing" - to tum'a. It was an ancient, pagan superstition, a misconception. But it had to be accommodated since the Torah needed to be accessible to people at the time. It could not expect them to be superhuman; the more important thing was to keep them from performing magical rites of demon exorcism. Similar to my thinking on Maimonides regarding sacrifices, it seems to me that such a line of reasoning does not fit the text, neither in the amount of material and laws devoted to the topic of impurity, nor in the Torah's exhortations to take measures to remove one's tum'a, lest a person bear his or her iniquity (e.g. Lev 17:16). Torah passages regarding sacrifices and the laws of impurity read not as "concessions" but as vital to the well-being of Israelite society, clearly important to the Priestly worldview.

So we are left with tum'a as a non-personified destructive agent. But what exactly is the "destruction"?

Death and Impurity

As we said above, the demonic forces were perceived as harbingers of disease and death. If we look back at the sources of biblical impurity, one can easily point to "death," or perhaps "erosion of life," as the central organizing principle of tum'a. Human corpses and animal carcasses are clear - they present death itself. Tzara'at is a skin disease that resembles decomposition and the wasting away of the body. Fluid ejected from the genitals (the source of life) is perceived as a loss of life, either because those fluids are "life fluids" (semen, blood), or because they are signs of disease (abnormal discharges). Blood is explicitly referred to in the Torah as nefesh, "life force" (Lev 17:11, 17:14; Deut 12:23).

"Life and death" is indeed a common way to frame biblical impurity laws. And it is a fairly persuasive thesis, one which Milgrom makes, among others. Yet I would utter a word of caution here, since it is all too easy to take a specific lens, such as "life and death," and then proceed to scour the material and collect a myriad of data points which corroborate the thesis. What we inevitably find are that the data points which do not fit are as many as those which do. For instance:
  • Why should only certain animal carcasses render a person impure, and not others? 
  • Why should tzara'at on one's clothes or walls, which do not resemble decomposition of the body, render a person impure?
  • Why would other, more serious diseases not bring about impurity?
  • Why should the emission of semen in normal sexual relations possibly render anyone impure, semen being the very seed of life, i.e. the antithesis of death?
  • Why should menstrual blood, or postpartum blood, which are normal, healthy functions associated with reproduction, be associated with death and render the woman impure? 
  • If blood is life, why does blood loss from areas apart from the genitals not render a person impure?
I have no doubt that a brilliant expositor would be able to answer each of these questions. But these answers would be defensive (i.e. the attempt to fill in holes in the thesis) rather than following any logical imperative within the text. Like I say, with a sharp enough mind, one can massage the content to fit the thesis. Thus, even with a compelling rationale such as "affirmation of life / distancing from death," which I do believe has some validity in our case, I'm not convinced that such a rationale can single-handedly explain the laws of impurity in all their detail. There are obviously other factors at work here.

Symbolism, Pragmatism and Taboo

In my previous post, I discussed the possibility that food taboos preceded the laws of "kosher signs" such as split hooves and rumination. Rather than deriving strictly from a hygienic basis (i.e. what animals are healthy to eat and which carry disease), or strictly from a conceptual basis (i.e. what animals symbolize the values of society and which do not), the kosher criteria are developed following hundreds (even thousands) of years of input, including:
  • Observation of the affect on people, i.e. health and disease
  • Conventional use of the animals across cultures
  • Symbolic value of various animals in the society
  • National myth and folklore
  • Polemical reaction to pagan societies and rites
At the time of the Torah, Israel is already in possession of a venerable tradition of how to regard the various animals, including which animals are "worthy" of consumption according to the values of Israelite society, and which ones are taboo. At that point, another symbolic layer is added (via the Torah) to impart added meaning, purpose and sanctity to the existing "worthy" traditions, which necessarily excludes - and deems abominable - those practices which are still in use but deemed "out of character" for the society.

I would suggest that the same process is at work in the biblical purity laws as a whole.

As we said above, all over the ancient world, there were a variety of taboos involving menstrual blood, childbirth, semen and other genital discharges, afflictions of the skin or walls of one's house, as well as dead animals and humans. How these taboos came about was no doubt a mixture of traditions, superstitions, folklore, observation, symbolism, nationalism, piled up layer upon layer, like a "tel," for thousands of years. Meaning one cannot point to any one factor as "the" reason for the taboos. Yet at the same time there are repeated themes we can identify, like artifacts distributed throughout the tel, which give us some information about certain components that went into the taboo.

For instance, it seems entirely reasonable that, being over three millennia removed from "germ theory," part of the motivation for taboos such as contact with human and animal remains, or suspicious genital discharges, or precautions such as quarantine, or remedies such as immersion in water, stemmed from observations regarding disease and death. It also seems evident that some of these laws were simply givens in the ancient world, and that no nation who aspired to be civilized - including Israel - could possibly have abandoned them. If your Hittite neighbors scrupulously washed themselves after touching semen, and remained separate from women during menstruation and after childbirth, would you as a holy nation refrain from these "proper," elevated social mores? It is likewise reasonable to assume that the Israelite version of these taboos would take into account its particular values, its national story, its theology and traditions as distinct from pagan societies.

In sum, a picture emerges that biblical impurity laws are built from an existing set of taboos and mores, which themselves stem from a mix of pragmatism (disease prevention), symbolism, lore and happenstance over thousands of years - including specific traditions handed down within the Israelite lineage. The laws thus involve a combination of conformity with surrounding societies and at the same time a concerted rebellion against them.

Which is why it is impossible to articulate a "one-size-fits-all" explanation that encompasses the entire purity system. It doesn't stem from a single concept - it developed organically from multiple sources, for multiple reasons, and then received its final "polish" and interpretation by the Priestly school and became sanctified as part of Torah law. That is, I would suppose, how this body of law came to be.

That being said, the purity system of the Torah has a certain logic and coherence, and I believe we can still make substantial inroads in understanding how it works.

Pluses and Minuses

When the Torah speaks about the destructive power of impurity upon people, the phrase it employs is "tamei le-nefesh." (See Lev 24:4; Num 5:2, 9:6-7, 9:10.) It is damaging to the nefesh, a person's life-force. Damaging how? I believe Milgrom comes close to the answer. In speaking about the force of impurity polluting the Sanctuary, he offers the following analogy (emphasis mine):
"Let electromagnetism serve, mutatis mutandis, as an illustrative analogy. The minus charge of impurity is attracted to the plus charge of the sanctuary, and if the former builds up enough force to spark the gap, then lightninglike it will strike the sanctuary." (Anchor, Leviticus Vol I, p. 270)
Does impurity warrant the analogy to a "minus charge"? I believe it does. (In fact I used that exact terminology and wrote about it at length in my book Ohr HaShachar, and only today I discovered it in Milgrom's writing!) To understand the plus-minus distinction, we can look at other statements by Milgrom:
"There can be no doubt that the antonym of kadosh 'holy' is tamei 'impure'."
"[I]f tamei 'impure' stands for the forces of death, then kadosh 'holy' stands for the forces of life." (Ibid, p. 731, 733.)
In other words, "plus" (kedusha, holiness) equals life-force, "minus" (tum'a, impurity) equals death-force. Only here is where I differ with Milgrom. Instead of "death-force," I would call it "anti-life-force." It may sound like a negligible semantic distinction, but it actually makes a significant practical difference. Because a death-force is a "something," whereas an anti-life-force is a "lack."

We spoke above about the question of whether tum'a is a "thing" or merely a symbolic concept. I balk at the notion of tum'a as purely symbolic, for reasons I cited earlier. But I also balk at the idea of tum'a as a "thing." That is why I refrain from using the translation "pollution" to describe it. Because pollution connotes "stuff."

Instead, my speculation is that tum'a is in actuality a "minus," a vacuum capable of pulling in and draining life-force, i.e. kedusha.

Therefore, instead of conceptualizing tum'a as a "substance" that is transferred from one party to another, we might understand it as a "lack" which causes one party to draw life-force from the other. To illustrate, I offer two diagrams from my book (Ohr HaShachar, pp. 95-6):

Tum'a construed as a "lack" better conforms to Priestly theology, which rejects the idea of "dark forces." Instead of kedusha and tum'a conceptualized as God being pit against forces of evil, it is merely divine life-force vs. the lack thereof. This concept also may help to better explain the issue of impurity following childbirth, and the disparity in length of impurity based on the gender of the newborn.

Childbirth impurity and gender - a new understanding

We said initially that in order to address the question about why a female newborn would occasion twice the duration of impurity, we'd first need to know why childbirth causes impurity altogether. And to understand that, we'd need a rationale for impurity in general.

We've actually emended this process over the course of this piece. The "rationale," i.e. the set of reasons, behind biblical impurity, turns out to be fairly opaque and cannot be fully ascertained. As we said, it grew organically out of a combination of variables, over a long period of time, and involved universal taboos as well as a particular Israelite take on the concept (i.e. devoid of demons). Impurity accompanying childbirth is likewise a tradition the Torah shares with surrounding Ancient Near Eastern cultures. It was a social fixture, with variations across different societies:
"In ancient Persia, parturients and  menstruants were routinely quarantined... In ancient Greece, the Cyrene cathartic law decreed that for three days the new mother pollutes all who enter under her roof... [Among the Hittites,] the woman is kept in isolation for the last two months of her pregnancy. On the seventh day after the birth a sacrifice is offered... The Hittite rite speaks of the purification of the child [in addition to] the mother, and it is not limited to the postparturition period, as in Israel, but embraces the preparturition period as well." (Milgrom, Anchor, Leviticus Vol I, pp. 763-4)
And indeed the same is true of the disparity of impurity based on gender:
"Comparative material also duplicates the disparity in the purificatory periods following the birth of a boy and that of a girl, with the period following a girl's birth nearly always being longer. Thus in India a new mother is barred from the religious rites for thirty days if the child is male and forty days, if female... The Hittites who lived within Israel's cultural continuum exhibit an even more striking parallel: 'If a male child is born...when the third month arrives...they cleanse...and if a female child is born...when the fourth month arrives they cleanse'." (Ibid., p. 750)
Milgrom says that the reason for the gender distinction is unknown, but he offers the conjectures of others, which include:
  • The postnatal discharge for a female lasts longer (which is certainly factually wrong).
  • It reflects the relative status of the sexes in the Torah, wherein the redemption price of a woman is half that of a man.
  • According to a legend (in Jubilees), Adam was brought to Eden on the 41st day, Eve on the 81st day.
  • The Talmud cites a view that a male embryo is formed in 41 days, the female in 81 days.
  • Aristotle says that the male is formed in 40 days, the female in 3 months. (The last two positions are, needless to say, in error.)
The origin of the Torah's distinction is unquestionably murky. It could be that, as we quoted above, it comes down to social mores at the time. But I suspect that what troubles people (myself included) about the disparity is the potential conclusion that the Torah is saying that there is something "more impure" (doubly so, in fact) about a girl.

Milgrom rebuffs this notion by quoting the Talmud:
"For [the Sadducees] say, 'The bones of a donkey are pure, but the bones of Yohanan the High Priest are impure.' ... As is our love for them, so is their impurity." (Yadayim 4:6)
In other words, the ability to become impure indicates, if anything, something of greater value, not lesser. And I would add to that: It reflects greater kedusha, greater life.

Let's plug this into the idea of tum'a as a minus charge, a lack. The following is the speculation I offered in my book:
"In childbirth, not only does the mother lose nefesh (life-force) through the loss of her own blood, but she also loses the nefesh associated with her baby. During pregnancy, the nefesh of the baby is subsumed within the nefesh of the mother. At birth, when the baby separates, this is experienced by the mother as a loss, a sudden reduction of her total nefesh. Therefore, when the Torah says that the birth of a girl imparts twice the tuma as that of a boy, this implies not that a girl is more “tamei.” Just the opposite—it implies that a girl possesses twice the nefesh, double the life-energy. Thus, her leaving the mother constitutes double the loss of nefesh and requires twice the amount of time to be healed, replenished." (Ohr HaShachar, pp. 94-5)
In this formulation, the birth of a girl occasioning a longer period of tum'a implies that the mother incurred a greater loss, due to the extra life-energy of a female. Thus even the translation "impurity" does not fit. The mother is not "impure" - she is in a minus state. And being in a minus state means she is liable to draw from others, so the rules of separation apply.

Tum'a therefore can be defined as a "depletive force" with regards to life-energy, as it pertains to the personal (nefesh) as well as the sacred (kedusha). Tamei means "depleted," possessing a lack or minus.

Final notes

I'll conclude with two points:

1. The above definition of tum'a begs more precise definitions of other key related concepts, including kedusha, tahara, chol, cheit, and kapara. In my book, I lay out all these concepts and their interrelations. I hope to present them in future posts, but for now I'll give a quick run-through:
  • Kedusha, as Milgrom suggests, is the force for life. I would add that it implies "high intensity" life-force achieved via restriction and separation, i.e. abundant life-energy compressed within a confined space (or time).
  • Tahara is the neutral, conductive state (ready to conduct kedusha). If tum'a is a minus, tahara is zero charge.
  • Chol is that which is unrestricted, normal, unintense. As a verb, le-chalel, however, the connotation is negative (literally and figuratively), as it implies an act that induces chol, i.e. depletes (imparts a minus) to kedusha.
  • Cheit conveys a plus charge, excess, which as "transgression" implies taking something that does not belong to you. Therefore it must be purged, e.g. via a chatat offering. The cognate le-chate, however is positive (literally and figuratively), a procedure wherein "excess" is added to that which is tamei (minus charged) in order to restore tahara (neutrality, conductivity).
  • Kapara is the process of neutralization, "cancelling out" a destructive charge, whether plus (cheit) or minus (tum'a). Hence the concept of kofer implying "negation."
2. I recognize that these definitions are obscure and technical relative to their common English characterizations: "purity," "sin," atonement," and so on. One might even say that it rings of a "mystical" worldview. In fact, when writing my book, I often found the most citational support in mystical works such as those by R. Tzadok Hakohen. This requires a post unto itself, but I share sympathies with both the rational and mystical formulations of Judaism.

The rational is relatively "clean" conceptually. It makes fewer claims and assertions about reality and therefore yields a less dogmatic, more intellectually honest religious space. But the mystical has an appeal even to the scientific-minded person, since it speaks in terms of the dynamics of "things" in existence rather than symbolic representations alone. The idea that a light switch "turns on a light" has more allure than saying that the switch merely "symbolizes" light, which in turn "symbolizes" vitality, etc. However, if the "turning on" function turns out to be a dubious claim, I'll take symbolism.

The other advantage of the mystical worldview is that it may in fact comport to a greater degree with the ancient biblical mindset. The world of the Torah was indeed permeated with notions of supernatural entities. It was replete with feelings and intuitions, much more so than the abstract conceptual space of the Greeks and the sages of the Talmud. And even though terms like "plus charge" and "minus charge" sound technical, indeed anachronistically so, it could be that states of "lack," "excess," "intensity" and "neutrality" are very much the kinds of sensations which the Torah's original audience felt on a daily basis. It could be that the notion of "purging excess" or "replenishing a lack" would be all too familiar for ancient Israel. So even if a person (like myself) does not adopt the claims of mysticism, some of its ideas may serve as an aid to the student who wishes to enter into the biblical head space and understand the world from a more ancient perspective - that, as well as learning more about the historical context of the Torah, a fantastic aid to understanding. Yes, mysticism and biblical scholarship - strange bedfellows, to be sure. But also strangely compatible!