...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Tzariah, Metzorah, liminality, feminism, and embodiment (part 1)

(This is really long. I'll post part 2 sometime next week, probably. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts about this part and any issues it raises for you.)

One of the things I love most about Judaism is the way the calendar works. The Torah is divided into fifty-four portions, one of which is read every week (in non-leap years, like this year, there are a couple weeks that have two portions); at Simchat Torah, the cycle ends with the last portion of Deuteronomy and begins again with the first portion of Genesis. It's a cycle, but it's not quite circular; the Jewish year is more like a spiral. Each year when a particular portion rolls around you have the insight of what you learned about it last year and the growth that's taken place over the year; you're in the same place in the Torah, but you're not in the same place personally. It was an exciting time in my life as a baby Jew when I had experienced a whole year's cycle, and could remember last year's learning about a particular portion. It made me think of years in the future, when I'll have twenty or thirty experiences of a particular portion--all the learning and study and discussion from different communities that I'll have experienced by that point. It was such a happy, contented feeling--a satisfaction with and awe of the inheritance into which I've come.

(I think the same could be said of the traditional liturgical Christian calendar--not just the holidays, but the division of the year into different church seasons, and among churches that follow a lectionary. The UCC churches I grew up in only paid lip service to the Christian calendar, however, so it was never really my experience growing up. I'm curious to hear from my Christian friends if you have the same experiences with the Christian year.)

I have a Jewish calendar pinned to the wall of the kitchen to help me keep track of the Jewish months and days and the cycles of the moon and the Torah portions. I glanced at it a week ago and said, "Huh!" Daniel, who was sitting at the table, was like, "What 'huh'?" That week there were two Torah portions, Tzaria and Metzorah. I told Daniel that I said "huh" because last year I kept intending to write a blog post about Tzaria and Metzorah, and now I've officially been procrastinating for a year on that blog post.

Tzaria and Metzorah (which you can find in Leviticus 12:1-15:33) are some of the most challenging portions for modern Jews, especially for feminists: they're all about different kinds of skin diseases, emissions from the body, and other conditions that render someone tumeh (impure--roughly and perhaps inaccurately translated). I actually remember being at P'nai Or two years ago when these portions came around; it was the only service that Daniel ever attended, and we were both somewhere between amused and uncomfortable with reading about how seminal emissions rendered a man impure until he could immerse in a mikvah (it's not exactly the most date-friendly of Torah portions). That night at his house, we were talking about it and joking that (sacrilege alert) Orthodox communities should have drive-through mikvaot so that frum men could purify themselves at any time. I believe I suggested that the slogan of such a mikvah should be: "So you can daven great, even late!"

Tzaria and Metzorah can be difficult for contemporary Jews to accept or understand because, for one thing, now we know that semen, menstrual blood, and skin rashes are not things that we have to be afraid of; and for another thing, the prescribed purification rites--sacrificing different kinds of animals and things like that--are so foreign to our context. But these parshaiot are especially troublesome from a feminist perspective because of the associations they can suggest between women's bodies and processes and impurity. A woman can't enter the sacred sanctuary while she's menstruating, and for several days afterward; after giving birth to a boy child, she is tumah/impure for thirty days, but for a girl child, the impurity lasts double the length of time. How can we understand this in a non-misogynistic way?

I've heard a few different suggestions. Ancient cultures feared death. (Do we fear death any less?) Not understanding the scientific nature of bodily fluids, any loss of seemingly essential fluid was seen as a kind of death: not just because, augh! you're bleeding and it's scary, but because a loss of semen or menstrual blood represented the loss of a potential life. Ejaculation, menstruation, and childbirth were and, perhaps, still are liminal moments in life when an individual was believed to be especially close to the dividing line between life and death. To make as clear a distinction between life and death as possible, someone who passed through one of those liminal places needed to separate from the community and reestablish his or her ties to the living. (This explains why a woman who gave birth to a girl needed to separate for double the amount of time: her baby girl would grow to experience more liminal moments through menstruation and childbirth than would a baby boy).

At P'nai Or last year I remember discussing these portions--I knew more than I did the first year, when Daniel and I were there together, and I was increasingly interested in bringing a feminist analysis to bear on the parashiot. Different people shared their thoughts, and one of the dominant points that emerged was that there is some truth to the fact that certain experiences in life are so powerful that afterwards, you needed to take some time away from the community before you are ready to reenter it. A few women shared their experiences giving birth, saying that all they wanted to do was retreat to be with their baby and not have to deal with the obligations of the community. Could the proscriptions of the Torah have been crafted with these feelings in mind? Reb Aryeh suggested that a contemporary understanding of "pure" and "impure" could be "ready for community religious obligations" and "not ready for community religious obligations."

Something about that still doesn't satisfy me, though. I appreciate the new lens through which to consider Tzariah and Metzorah, and I think it's absolutely true that after a life/death experience, it's natural to want to retreat from community obligations. But what does it mean that women, by nature of menstruation and childbirth, spend far, far more time then men in the state of "not ready for community religious obligation?" Is there any way to think about this without falling into the old association of women with the body and men with the mind--with Woman as the earthy, fleshy, bleeding body and Man with the lofty spirit and intellect? These were the questions I brought to Tzariah and Metzorah when it cycled back around this year.

To be continued...