“And at the completion of the days of her purification, she shall bring a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest.” (Leviticus 12:6)
“The students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai asked, ‘Why does the Torah teach that a woman after childbirth brings a sin offering?’ He replied, ‘During hard labor she swears impulsively that she will never have intercourse with her husband; therefore, the Torah requires she bring an offering.’” (Talmud Bavli, Niddah 31b)
Each time I encounter this verse in Leviticus, I am reminded that Torah study is personal, that the emotional context of my students matters. For me, the affective precedes the cognitive; until I understand how I feel about the text, I cannot uncover its deeper meaning.
My first encounter with Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s explanation of this verse was during my sophomore year of college, when my feminist ideology was emerging as I studied Jewish history and literature at Bryn Mawr College. The classical rabbinic material on women struck me as typically patriarchal fare—male rabbis who had never experienced or even witnessed childbirth projecting their fears and misapprehensions onto a singularly female act of physical strength.
Ten years later, following the birth of my first child, I reread the sages’ words not as a pronouncement of judgment but rather as a reflection of compassion. Having sworn in this exact fashion through gritted teeth during an intensely painful contraction and having immediately relented when the nurse placed my newborn daughter in my arms, I understood the texts differently. Perhaps Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s explanation was an expression of his awe that a woman in the throes of childbirth can be lucid enough to make an oath at all.
As Parashat Tazria approaches in the Torah reading cycle, I anticipate my next encounter with this verse as a middle-aged mother of three, now a seasoned feminist and lifelong learner. Not only the act of childbirth, but also decades of parenthood, has taught me humility. I contemplate the many times I’ve hastily uttered, “I’ll never do such-and-such to my child.” It would be so much easier to bring a sin offering to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting than to seek forgiveness for broken promises, to atone for oaths made in vain.
Atonement after childbirth is for the prideful boast, implicit in the act of procreation, I can be like God, I can fashion another human being in my own image. After facing the pain of childbirth with bravado, I realize true bravery is required to face the challenges of parenthood.
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