It’s no secret that the Bible is full of problematic passages for Jews who wish to define themselves as feminists. Nowhere is this more prominent than Vayikra, the book where the laws are laid down for the prosperity of the children of Israel. Whereas the overt prejudices and discrimination in Bereishit can be somewhat excused as stories of their time, understandably dated and patriarchal due to the era they (probably) took place in, it is harder to reconcile the commandments of Vayikra with our modern notions of egalitarianism.
TW: the next paragraph briefly discusses rape
Of course, many of the more extreme commandments have been abandoned by even the most halachically observant Jews – stoning adulterers and forcing your daughter to marry her rapist ‘because he has violated her [and thus] he can never have the right to divorce her’ being among them. Masorti’s commitment to continually re-interpreting halacha, meanwhile, allows us to understand old rules in new ways. Many practices, however, remain prominent in large sections of the Jewish community, and the often uncomfortable history of our attitude to gender is impossible to ignore. In fact, it is important that we do not dismiss the attitudes shown here as historic, outdated or irrelevant to our experience of Judaism; it is only by interrogating the past that we can shine a light on our own present.
While most of us in the Noam/Marom kehila would define ourselves as feminists, we almost all regularly engage in practices which further the polarisation of the genders. Though these might not be as explicit or conscious as overt discrimination, subtle differences in expectations and treatment of sensitive issues often exist. The discomfort shown by many during the ongoing saga of head coverings on camp is just one example of how even the most professedly liberal-thinking of us can be guilty of this.
Handy, then, that there are all sorts of bloody sexism in this week’s parasha – bloody being the operative word. The bulk of Tazria is taken up by the rules surrounding leprosy and assorted skin diseases: how to determine if one is affected, how the inflicted should be treated, quarantine measures and so forth. The overriding impression is that this disease is impure, and has the potential to make all who come into contact with it impure in the eyes of God (or for the purposes of ritual such as visiting the temple).
The juxtaposition of childbirth laws at the start of the parasha, then, is marked and seemingly obvious. Tazria is Hebrew for ‘she conceives’, and this sedra suggests that childbirth is a state of impurity. Similarly (and discussed in the following parsha, Metzora), menstruation causes women to become nidah (impure). Both childbirth and periods must be followed by at least seven days of this state: only after this may a woman visit a mikveh and cleanse herself. Men, meanwhile, in an unsurprisingly un-egalitarian tradition, must merely wash themselves – rather than visit a mikveh – after a ‘seminal discharge’ and are automatically then pure by the evening.
Revealingly, the birth of a female child necessitates a waiting period double that of a male child; this was explained rather entertainingly by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. When his disciples questioned why women were ordered to bring a sacrifice to the temple after giving birth, he replied that a woman might swear during the pain of labour that she would never again have sex with her husband (having watched Call the Midwife and One Born Every Minute, I think I can understand why). Knowing that she would probably break this oath in future (ha), the Torah was helping her to pre-empt and apologise in advance for doing so. The Rabbi went on to conclude that the mandated break in physical contact was doubled for a girl because while family and friends would be happy at the birth of a son, and thus the mother would regret her oath after a mere week, a daughter would not be celebrated, and so the woman would take at least two weeks to reconsider her promise. Leaving aside our modern notions of female desire, this seems an intelligent interpretation of attitudes of the time.
Though few of us in Noam observe taharat ha’mishpacha (laws of family purity) – and some, guided by Rabbi Joel, attempted to revisit and reclaim the tradition of immersion last Yom Kippur – a huge stigma surrounding menstruation remains in most of our lives. I can well remember the excruciating embarrassment of a tampon falling out of my pocket at school, and most girls will have experienced the whispered requests to borrow a pad, apparently far too embarrassing to be said out loud. The only time I have happily announced a period was on being able to smugly inform a PE teacher that I couldn’t possibly take part in swimming lessons. In commercial culture, meanwhile, euphemisms for period products abound; supermarkets aisles will be marked ‘feminine supplies’ or ‘sanitary products’ rather than pads and tampons.
Period shame and negativity has been a subtle tool of oppression for far too long. By teaching young girls that the natural processes of their bodies are inherently shameful or unclean, we do lasting damage to their self-belief and self-confidence in their own physicality.
Noam and Marom do incredible work to further the smashing of the patriarchy, both in the camp environment and year round. Recent veidah motions, such as gender neutral dorms on pre-camp, and the sterling hadracha performed by our madrichim, have the power to influence the next generation of progressive Jews for the better. Let’s keep it up, and look to lessons from our past as to what to tackle next; my vote is for period positivity.