Tazria: A Path to Follow

“…and on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin is to be circumcised.”
— Leviticus/Vayikra 12:3

Don’t be deterred by the blood-pink cover of Lawrence A. Hoffman’s Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism* or by an apparent narrowness of the topic: “Our focus is the rite of circumcision,” Hoffman says early on. “Our topic, however, is nothing less than rabbinic culture as a whole.” He proceeds to offer a fascinating tour of Jewish thought and practice over the centuries, with particular attention to “private,” “public” and “official” ritual meanings.

It is not necessary to master every detailed argument to follow the book’s overall line of thought, especially helpful in understanding Leviticus and its later interpretations:

…precisely because rabbinic Judaism was a religion of the body, men’s and women’s bodies became signifiers of what the Rabbis accepted as gender essence, especially with regard to the binary opposition of men’s blood drawn during circumcision and women’s blood that flows during menstruation….

…the Rabbis made Judaism inseparable from the male lifeline. Like it or not, they had no idea of a female lifeline….

…women are party [to the Covenant between Jewish men and God] only in a secondary way, through their relationships with fathers and then husbands. I repeat: I do not like it that way; I did not expect to find it that way. But that is the only conclusion my evidence will allow. Better to drag this latent cultural presumption out from beneath the rocks to see what else is attached to it than to let it lie undisturbed as if it were not really there. We can work with what we know, not with what we don’t….
Covenant of Blood, p.23, 25, 26

Along the way, Hoffman offers interesting views of girls and women at various periods in Jewish ritual history: Evidence, e.g., for an ancient “shevua habat” — literally, “week of the daughter” — a birth celebration for girls paralleling that for boys. “[A]s much as gender opposition was part of rabbinic culture, average Jews, even those who followed the Rabbis in their religious life, did not necessarily discriminate against girls as universally as rabbinic rites might suggest,” he adds (p.177).

* Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996. See also Source Materials and “Metzora: Great Source

The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Published by


Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

2 thoughts on “Tazria: A Path to Follow”

  1. A friend once mentioned she felt a personal reciprocity between male circumcision and childbirth. Did Jewish men find a way to feel connected physically to childbearing through this life passage? Is it also a way for Jewish men to strengthen physical bonding with boys? I noticed that the birth process seemed suddenly real to my baby’s father as … See Moresoon as he could see and hold our child. It’s hard for anyone to adjust to and bond with the presence of a new person; it rearranges everything about one’s own sense of self. Women who adopt also need to create deep physical bonds with their children that are not developed during pregnancy and childbirth. She goes through an intense rearrangement too…call it tzimtzum, making room for someone else by withdrawing yourself. The truth is that many birth moms also have to struggle with this. It’s a myth that all mothers are just naturally able to bond with their children. All mothers and fathers have to actively adopt their children in order to put the child’s needs first. A mother’s body does serve as a complex and difficult threshold to this physical world for all of us, but she is a person, not a thing. A baby doesn’t know that; it takes maturity to relate to one’s mother as a person like oneself, rather than an object of self-gratification. We all have to go through the process of being born, and need to learning healthy ways to separate from mother, whether we actually experience giving birth to another person or not. Many people never have an adequate bond with their mothers in the first place, making it even harder to negotiate the separation and find the self. Another interesting time correlation is 9 months of pregnancy and circumcision on the 8th day. Havdallah is another separation ritual that marks the end of Shabbat every 7 days, and also the end of Yom Tov and the beginning of regular work days. We give ourselves life maps in time and space. Male circumcision also has a frightening undercurrent of the Binding of Isaac story. During his circumcision I felt a visceral urge to snatch my helpless and sensitive newborn away from harm. And I thought: are these men crazy? At the same time I suffered from the cut made to facilitate his delivery. I would heal and so would my son. Focusing on the power of healing goes beyond our control to an awareness of God given gifts. God is the source of life, not us. So perhaps the real significance of the ritual is in the healing rather than the wound. We learn to heal after separations and become whole again and again. Separation is a perilous maneuver. The doctor who delivered my son was six months pregnant herself at the time. Men need to learn how to connect with the generations, and yet also define their own boundaries in relation to their mothers and other women. In our culture so much disrespect has accumulated at these borders. We need to remove disparaging attitudes that characterize women as objects instead of people. These lyrics come to mind: “If you like it you shoulda put a ring on it.” Beyonce is extremely talented and beautiful, but I think the song and dance in that music video stereotypes her as an “it,” a body, instead of a “thou,” a person. Real relationships with women require respect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s