Rituals are meant to provide orientation and grounding through the uncertain, ambiguous, and/or emotionally tumultuous times of life. This week’s torah portion, Tazria, starts by describing the rituals surrounding one of life’s most disorienting experiences: pregnancy and childbirth. After giving birth, the Torah teaches, a person should wait a period of time (thirty-three days for a male child, sixty-six days for a female child) and then bring an offering to the temple.
The Talmud (Niddah 27b) explains that the Torah is not just discussing pregnancies that end in birth; the Torah describes the case as one where where “a woman 'sends seed' (tazria) and gives birth (v’yaldah)”. If the Torah were just talking about people who give birth, it explains, we wouldn’t need the initial verb tazria; the verse could be simply “when a woman gives birth…”. The Talmud concludes that the offering is not brought solely after childbirth, but even if a person gave birth to “a pulpy mass which had dissolved, having become liquified like seed”.
The Talmud’s description is graphic and perhaps a little grotesque, but so are births, miscarriages, and abortions. The details of these events are frequently left out of public discourse, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t emotionally intense experiences in need of ritual demarcation. The Talmud's explanation helps us to remember that, no matter the situation, the end of a pregnancy can be extremely disorienting and is deserving of a sacred rite to mark the experience.
The Talmud's commentary also reminds us of the tendency of public narratives to conflate the experience of pregnancy with childbirth and to oversimplify the stories of pregnant people more generally. When this happens, the diversity of the emotional and spiritual needs of pregnant people are ignored.
There is much work to be done on many levels to be able to fully appreciate both the vastness of the experiences of pregnant people and their needs, no matter whether their pregnancies lead to births, miscarriages, or abortions. A crucial component is protecting the right to safe healthcare, including access to abortions. This week, an important step was taken in the Maryland legislation to protect reproductive rights: the Maryland General Assembly passed the Abortion Care Access Act. Still, there is much work to be done. I am grateful for everyone who advocated for this bill to pass, and I pray we all may be ready to take whatever action is needed next to support the fight for reproductive rights.
Rory Katz is the rabbi of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore. She was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in May 2019.