Ohr Torah on the Parsha: Life-Force or Decay?

Torah lights from Efrat, Gush Etzion in the Judean Hills.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin


This week's Torah reading is not only difficult because of its subject matter - the ritual status of a woman after she gives birth as well as the ritual impurity which devolves upon both men and women when semen or blood emerges from their bodies - but also in terms of the very strange order of the verses and the chapters.

The first question arises from a verse that seemingly has no connection to what precedes or follows it: after the Bible has informed us that when a woman bears a male child she will be ritually impure for seven days (Lev. 12:2), the following verse does not deal with the subsequent days of ritual purity, which she is allowed to enjoy no matter what her physical state may be.  Instead, that comes two verses later (ibid. 12:4).  In between,  the Bible informs us "on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised."  Why place the law of circumcision in the very midst of the laws of a woman's status of purity upon her giving birth? It hardly seems to belong!

The second question deals with the order of the chapters. Chapter 12 deals with ritual purity and impurity as a result of childbirth, as we have seen. Chapter 15 deals with the different kinds of male seminal emissions and the different kinds of female blood emissions that are also connected to reproduction as a result of a sexual act between the couple. In the midst of these two Biblical discussions, which certainly involve ritual impurity and impurity surrounding reproduction, come two chapters 13 and 14 - which deal with tzara'at, usually translated as "leprosy" but that actually refers to a discoloration and degeneration of the skin which cause the individual to look like a walking corpse.

Why bring in tzara'at to the midst of a discussion on reproduction?

In Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik's important work Family Redeemed, my revered teacher interprets the opening chapters of Genesis as a crucial lesson to humanity concerning the spiritual potential as well as the destructive danger of the sexual act. Indeed, the classical commentator Rashi understands the fruit of knowledge of good and evil as possessing human nature libido, eroticism and lust rather than the expression of love and the reproductive powers which were initially imbedded in human nature.

Sigmund Freud sees the serpent as a phallic symbol and "eating" is often found in the Bible as a metaphor for engaging in sex. From this perspective, the sin of partaking of the forbidden fruit is the sin of sexual lust, which can often separate sex from the sacred institution of matrimony, from a natural expression of affection between two individuals who are committed to a shared life and to the establishment of a family.

It is fascinating that the punishments for eating the fruit are related to reproduction: "And to the woman [who initiated the transgression according to the Biblical account] He said, 'I will greatly multiply your pain and travail in pregnancy and with pain shall you bring forth children.'" (Gen. 3:16). Even more to the point, the most fundamental penalty for having tasted of the forbidden fruit is death, which plagues men and woman alike: "But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat; for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17) The sexual act was meant to give not only unity and joy to the couple, but also to bestow continued life through the gift of reproduction.

I would argue that this is precisely why tzara'at, or the living death which it symbolizes, appears in the Bible in the midst of its discussion of reproduction and the normative processes of seminal emissions and menstrual blood which are necessary byproducts of the glory of reproduction. Tragically the life-force which is granted by God through the sexual organs can often degenerate into decay and death when those very sexual organs are misused.

I will also submit that this is precisely why the commandment of circumcision on the eighth day comes right before the Biblical establishment of a large number of days of purity (33 days after the birth of a male and 66 days after the birth of a female) no matter what blood may emerge from the woman's body. The much larger number of days attests to the great miracle of childbirth - which is always a heartbeat away from death for every anxious parent until the healthy baby emerges and omits its first cry.  The birthing mother's days of ritual impurity counterbalance new life and the continuation of the family line, giving the greatest degree of satisfaction that a human being can ever experience.

Such glories of reproduction are only possible if the male will learn to limit his sexual activity to being within the institution of marriage and will recognize the sanctity of sex as well as its pleasures. Placing the Divine mark upon the male sexual organ with the performance of the commandment of circumcision establishes this ideal of sanctity.

The sacredness of the woman's body is similarly expressed when she immerses herself in a mikveh prior to resuming sexual relations with her husband each month and even makes a blessing to G-d while still unclothed within the ritual waters which symbolize life and birth and future.

Hence, the most meaningful blessing which I know is intoned during the marriage ceremony: "Blessed are You O Lord our G-d King of the Universe, who sanctifies his nation Israel by means of the nuptial canopy and the sanctity of marriage."


Arutz Sheva adds: Vis a vis artificial insemination (the subject of the video), the following is a responsum of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner.

Q: If it permissible for a single woman, who is reaching the age of forty, sees that she does not have a reasonable chance of getting married and desperately wants a baby, to be artificially inseminated?
A: Artificial Insemination from a Jewish donor is impossible since the donation is made anonymously and since the father is unknown, there is a concern that the child will eventually marry one of his/her relatives.

Artificial Insemination from a non-Jew does not contain this problem. There are authorities (i.e. HaRav Moshe Feinstein [mentioned in video, ed.] HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and others) who permit artificial Insemination from a non-Jew for a married woman whose husband is infertile. From a certain perspective this is preferable to adopting a child, since at least the woman will be the child's natural mother.

In our case, however, it is improper since the child will be bereft of a father. It is true that there are single parents after a divorce or a death, and the child is bereft of a parent, but the child has a father. Our case is somewhat similar to a "shetuki" mentioned in the Gemara (Kiddushin 69a). A "shetuki" is someone who knows his mother but not his father, and he is called a "shetuki" because when he calls: "Abba," his mother says: "Shetok" (quiet).

The Master of the Universe arranged that a child would have a mother and a father. This is normal. After the fact, a single mother can do a wonderful job raising children, but before the fact it is unethical for a mother to build her own happiness at the expense of the child. It will forever be difficult for him to respond to the question of who is his father, and it is possible that he will be suspected for being born out of wedlock in an illicit relationship.

Furthermore, it is possible that it is forbidden to have a medical procedure such as this. As is known, it is not obvious that medical procedures are permissible, and they are only allowed because the Torah explicitly permitted them: "And you shall surely heal" (Shemot 21:19) from which we learn that permission is given to a doctor to heal (Baba Kamma 85a). Hashem's will is for children to be born through the daughters of Israel from two parents who are married to one another, and not from a single woman. It is therefore possible that a medical procedure in order to impregnate a single woman is a Torah prohibition.

In sum: A single woman should not have artificially insemination to give birth to a child who will grow up without a father. Rather she should pray for Hashem's mercy to find the right mate to marry.