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.

Metzora: Great Source

Leviticus 15 is a tightly constructed essay on genital pollution, arranged chiastically but not along gender lines. In what may be an added verse to the otherwise tightly constructed chapter (v.31) all Israelites, men and women, are warned to be on guard against uncleanness. In case we have any doubt above the overall structure of the essay, we find the apt conclusion in vv. 32-33:

Such is the ritual concerning one who has a discharge, and him who has an emission of semen and becomes unclean thereby, and concerning her who is in her menstrual infirmity: anyone, that is, male or female, who has a discharge, and also the man who lies with an unclean woman.

“Anyone…male or female” — that is the key to Leviticus, which establishes impurity rules, but does not discriminate between men and women. Both are agents of impurity insofar as either emits an bodily substance through the sexual organs. The remarkable thing is how the Rabbis interpret the same rules with an entirely different criterion in mind…

…the key to body-fluid pollution should be sought in the issue of control….At issue is a deeper perception that the Rabbis have of men on the one hand and women on the other….this underlying perception takes us back once again to blood as the Rabbis’ primary means of symbolizing gender issues. The binary opposition obtains between men who are in control of their blood, so of themselves, and therefore of society; and women, who lacking control of blood and therefore of self, are thus denied control of society as well. Continue Reading