Double Mitzvah – Tazria

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by David Bookbinder. David is an educator and part of the amazing Leadership Team of Jewrotica. For more of David’s columns, check out Double Mitzvah – Tzav, and last week’s Double Mitzvah Double Mitzvah – Shmini .

Rated PG-13

The Psychology of Sexual Consequences

This just in…sex has consequences! I know that many of you are probably shocked right now, but worry not – we’re here to help. A large focus of dialogue around sex and sexuality focuses on the act itself or our sexual identities, and rightly so. However, it is important to remember that the consequences of sex (both positive and negative) are also intimately connected with our sexuality. So, without further ado, let’s talk about STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and making babies.

Many of us would not immediately associate the words pregnancy, STI, and sexuality together. They seem to be very disparate topics. Pregnancy is all about creating new life, STIs are sickness and disease, and sexuality is what happens before all that, right? This formulation isn’t wrong but simply a little too narrow. Luckily, our parsha this week, Tazria, can help us to broaden our perspective.

Tazria picks up the discussion from the end of last week’s various purity-related issues regarding animals. The Torah starts this week with human purity at the beginning, with pregnancy and birth, then continues on for the entire rest of the parsha discussing various skin afflictions, in general called tzara’at. Right off the bat we have a glaring question: how are pregnancy and disease connected in such a way that the parsha solely focuses on those two topics?

Let’s begin with purity surrounding birth. God tells Moshe that a woman who gives birth is tamei (purposefully untranslated) for a number of days and then goes through a long purification process to become tahor (also purposefully untranslated).

What are tamei and tahor exactly? Beginning in Chapter 13, the Torah launches into a description of an infectious skin disease. If you think you have it you go to the priests to identify it. If it is identified as tzara’at, the person is pronounced tamei. A quarantine period follows, the priest performs a check-up and if all goes well the person can now be declared as tahor. But what is the connection between these two concepts of tamei and tahor on the one hand and childbirth and disease on the other?

Well a quick peek over at Rav Wikipedia’s entry on tum’a and tahara gives us six instances which when the terms tamei, usually translated as “impure,” and tahor, usually translated as “pure,” are used.

1.Contact with a “dead body”
2.Being present in a building or roofed structure containing a dead body.
3.Coming in contact with animal carcasses.
4.Contact with certain bodily fluids
5.Giving birth to a child.
6.Contracting tzaraat.

Coming into contact with disease, fluids, or death could certainly being seen as something impure, but how does childbirth fit in? Birth is the creation of new life, literally mimicking God’s Creation. How can something as powerful as giving life make someone impure?

A 19th century rabbi could definitely help shed some light on this dilemma. Rav Shimson Hirsch, the “father” of Modern Orthodoxy, describes a woman’s psychology after giving birth:

In the process of giving birth, a woman necessarily surrenders to the overwhelming physical process and thus is intimately subject to the illusion that she is an unfree object of natural forces rather than the holy being that she is. Until enough time has passed for the depressing effects of this spiritual trauma to ebb, she needs to take a break from holy offerings that require a whole spirit. That’s the tum-a that she experiences.

In other words, giving birth has a profound psychological impact on the woman. In actuality everything related to tum’a produces intense psychological and emotional responses. Looking back at our Wikipedia entry: contact with death, giving birth, encounter with disease, and sex are all powerful moments which affect a person on a deep psychological and emotional level.

So…sex. Engaging in any kind of sexual relationship affects how we see ourselves as sexual beings. Society judges us and we judge ourselves based on how many people we’ve been with, how often, how long, how good, etc. But our opinion of our sexual and sensual identity does not end with the act of sex. Pregnancy/childbirth and STIs also affect how we see ourselves as sexual beings.

Being pregnant for nine months and then pushing another human being out is not necessarily the sexiest image in our society’s mind. This translates into many women struggling with their own sensuality and sexuality postpartum.There are no shortage of articles online and in magazines dealing with this exact issue.

Less common in the media but just as true is the struggle for people who have had or have STIs. Aside from serious medical concerns, and possibly due to them, having an STI can severely and negatively affect a person’s sexual identity and sexual body image. Prevention is key and emphasized above all else, rightly so. But this emphasis also leads to profound guilt for someone who contracted an STI, which further serves to injure their sexual identity.

Our parsha this week teaches us that it is okay to have these profound psychological and emotional reactions to these situations because it can get better. Yes there will be a period of time in which you will be “impure.” Your mind might not be in the healthiest of places. But it does get better. Eventually the “impurity” fades and we are left with a more whole self and understanding of who we are as sexual beings. It is important to remember that while sex can be awesome, childbirth can be miraculous, and STIs can be frightening – they all share the power to affect our sexuality in profound ways. Knowing this, when we encounter these effects we can better reflect on and “purify” our perceptions of our own sexuality. These laws remind us that just as we must care for our physical selves we must also care for our psychological selves, our emotional selves, and our sexual selves.

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