Life, Death and Impurity

Ritual purity laws highlight the power of confronting mortality and the subsequent need to ritualize the reaffirmation of life.

Commentary on Parashat Tazria, Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59

My spiritual and intellectual journey as a teacher of Torah began with the purity system in Leviticus. Perhaps this was a strange place to begin my life’s passion — exploring genital discharges, corpse contamination and leprosy. However, the study of biblical purity laws yielded for me a profound appreciation for the beauty and wisdom of our tradition.

As a young feminist college student, I discovered that the ancient Jewish laws of menstrual impurity were not an example of gender discrimination or blood taboo. Rather, the Torah teaches that all genital discharges, female and male, are sources of tumah (ritual impurity). These laws are part of a broader symbolic system, which highlights the power of confronting mortality and the subsequent need to ritualize the reaffirmation of life.

Many scholars concur that life/death symbolism is the underlying principle behind the biblical purity system. According to this theory, one becomes impure upon contact with death or with the loss of potential life. Indeed, the greatest source of impurity is a human corpse (Numbers 19). Leprosy, a scaly white skin disease which made one look like a corpse (see Numbers 12:12), is another severe form of impurity. Genital fluids, which represent the loss of generative material from the font of life, also cause impurity (Leviticus 15).

The Source of Life

According to biblical theology, God is the Source of Life. The God of Israel embodies life, and only the living can praise God (Psalms 115). Therefore, our encounters with death or symbolic reminders of death momentarily remove us from the life-affirming rituals of God’s abode in the Temple. Only after a symbolic rebirth through immersion in the “living waters” of the mikveh (ritual bath) could one return to a state of purity.

For many years, I have relished any opportunity to teach about the biblical purity system and the powerful purification ritual of the mikveh. However, year after year, I am challenged by the most paradoxical case of impurity in Leviticus. Parshat Tazria declares that a mother becomes impure following childbirth:

“When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days … she shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days … if she bears a female, she shall be impure two weeks …and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days.” (Leviticus 12:2-5)

Why would a mother contract impurity upon bringing new life into the world if impurity is the result of the symbolic forces of death? Furthermore, why would a mother’s period of impurity double upon the birth of a female child?

Each time I read Leviticus 12, I consider the available responses to these persistent questions. There are several compelling suggestions. First, childbirth in the ancient Near East was fraught with danger to the mother and high infant morality rates. Thus, every childbirth was an encounter with potential death. Secondly, the pregnant woman is a vessel of abundant life. Following delivery, the mother experiences a loss of this powerful presence of life within. Her discharge of life leaves a void and creates the ritual necessity for purification. While neither of these answers perfectly reconciles the impurity of childbirth within the symbolic system, they both address the experience of childbirth as a nexus point between life and death.

Giving Birth Today

In light of recent events, I have contemplated another possible explanation for the impurity of childbirth. In a haunting discussion about instability in the Middle East and the vulnerable state of world affairs, a colleague described the frightening experience of bringing a child into this world: “While I feel great joy in creating a new life,” he remarked,”I also know that I have created a new potential for death.” Every human being will die. Each birth brings another fragile, mortal being into the universe. In our precarious world, this reality quickly comes into sharp focus.

Herein lies one explanation for the double period of impurity following the birth of a female child. The baby girl embodies the potential to one day bear another new life. Each life that is brought into the world will also bring another death. Therefore, the Torah marks the birth of a girl, a future holy vessel for the creation of life, as fraught with twice the amount “death symbolism.”

Perhaps the laws of Leviticus 12 respond to the conflicting emotions of any new parent. A new birth brings joy and trepidation, awe and fear. A new parent has faith in the potential for life, yet dreads the possibility of death. The biblical purity system proclaims that our confrontations with the temporal nature of life leave a deep spiritual imprint — from conception to birth to illness to death. At every stage in life, we acknowledge and ritualize our encounters with death. Then we embrace and immerse in life anew.

Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

Discover More

Balaam the Prophet

The infamous story of the prophet with the talking donkey demonstrates the Bible's awareness that powers of divination were not limited to Israelite seers.