A Re-Reading of the Torah portion Tazria-Metzora for Survivors of Sexual Violence
Tazria-Metzora: An Unloved Bit Of Torah
“Ohh, that one,” said the cantor, only half-attempting to hide his reticence and disgust. He was referring to the parsha (section of Torah) that I would chant at my bat mitzvah.
Turns out he was not alone. Most clergy are less than psyched to talk about Tazria-Metzora. It’s about skin afflictions, pus, and genital discharge. It details purification protocols after childbirth, seminal emissions, discharges of all kinds, and menstruation, including situations calling for isolation from community. These messy topics are often taboo, even in healthcare settings. Additionally, in the Torah portion, they’re couched in an ancient Jewish cultural framework of ritual purity and impurity that can be hard to make sense of in modern times.
I’d learned about sexually transmitted infections in health class at school. However, as a 13-year-old girl studying Tazria-Metzora, it never occurred to me that my parsha was talking about them. I didn’t even know that the very name of the Torah portion – Tazria – means “childbirth.” Common aversion to this parsha, plus general reluctance to talk openly about menstruation, etc., prevented me from relating its words to my own body. Instead, I focused on the haftarah portion (a complementary reading from related holy books) for my dvar (teaching/sermon); I likened the biblical lepers outside the gates of the Israelites’ camp to people with AIDS being stigmatized and shunned in the 1990s. My dvar was relevant, but not personal.
A Personal Discovery
On Rosh Hashanah 5780, two and a half years ago, in conversation with someone I trust, I opened up a well of traumatic memory. In a flash of self-understanding, I realized that I’d been molested as an infant. Over the next few weeks, I learned that from ages zero to five, I had been regularly sexually abused by a caregiver, someone outside my family. This realization also prompted me, finally, to come to terms with the fact that I had been raped when I was 15. The years between ages eight (when I began to develop breasts) and fifteen held their own experiences that were not as egregious individually but cumulatively deeply injured my sense of self and bodily autonomy.
Over the last few years, I have been tenaciously and lovingly tending to this vault of trauma. Part of this tending has been re-learning Tazria-Metzora and coming to appreciate it as a Jewish treatise on sexual health, body sovereignty, and spiritual intimacy.
The Morality Paradigm
Thousands of years ago, the high priests were considered to be both spiritual and medical mediaries who interpreted ailments and releases of the body as demonstrations of one’s spiritual state. The laws presented in Tazria-Metzora pertaining to taharah (ritual purity) and tum’ah (ritual impurity) were designed to ensure that only people who were tahor (pure, the adjectival form of taharah) would enter the Temple. The reason for this was not punishment, but rather the protection of the person; to directly encounter God without being in one’s full health and presence could be overwhelming or debilitating, even fatal. Thus, a person needed to be tahor, pure, when entering the Temple.
But what constitutes taharah, being pure? The concept of ritual purity and impurity is elusive to many modern minds. People more commonly equate purity with morality than with an esoteric quality bestowed by obscure ritual means. Tazria-Metzora presents the concepts of taharah and tum’ah as distinct from physical cleanliness or morality, but in today’s Jewish communities they are often interpreted or felt as such anyway.
Why is this? One reason could be superstitious fears and resultant stigmatization related to menstrual blood and sexuality more generally, a result of patriarchal and Christianizing influences beginning in the Temple era. A second reason could be overarching discomfort with these topics in the cultures across the diaspora that Jews have been part of. A third reason could be confusion between tzara’at (the skin affliction addressed in Tazria-Metzora) and other topics addressed in the parsha (e.g. childbirth, seminal emissions). The Sages believed that tzara’at was a result of antisocial (synonymous in tribal culture with ‘immoral’) behavior. An example is when Miriam the prophetess was afflicted with tzara’at as a result of speaking lashon hara (gossip) about Moshe (Numbers 12). Without a careful reading of Tazria-Metzora, one might think the same diagnosis and treatment apply to someone with tzara’at and someone who has bled or given birth; both people are considered tamei (impure, the adjectival form of tum’ah) and the purification rituals are all interwoven verse to verse in the parsha.
The (im)morality paradigm can produce unnecessary shame for anyone who bleeds, births, or discharges. For survivors of sexual violence, the problem goes deeper. Survivors so often contend with shame, silencing, and feelings of being less than. Conflation of tum’ah with immorality can suggest to people who have been violated – especially if their coping strategies involve sex and sexuality – that they are somehow immoral, impure, bad. This conflation is dangerous. It can lead to self-blaming, self-harm, and reinforcement rather than transformation of trauma patterns.
The Boundaries Paradigm
In my re-learning of Tazria-Metzora, I sought out different perspectives. I asked a friend, Rabbi Lee Moore, who shared with me her perspective that taharah is about having intact boundaries and tum’ah is about having permeable boundaries. Curious, I researched more in this direction and discovered a piece by Nina Rubin and Rabbi Hillel Katzir in which they describe tahor and tamei as ‘spiritually whole’ and ‘spiritually vulnerable.’ They consider tahor as describing “a state of boundaried wholeness” and of tamei as being an “open, less boundaried version of ourselves.” They go on to explain,
“The Jewish tradition has labeled tahor as the desirable state, and tamei as undesirable. But the things that make us tamei are often connected with individual intimacy: sex, giving birth, assisting others, loss. Anytime you are intimately involved, you have the possibility of being spiritually vulnerable. Tamei is not a negative state, because it is actually a goal for many people to open their hearts, which can lead to intimate and spiritual experiences. But intimate encounters leave us in a vulnerable state and so, as the tradition recognizes, we can’t stay there for long periods of time. We sometimes need to move toward a state of tahor as a preparation for more of life’s intimacies; but intimacy diminishes when boundaried, so we wouldn’t want to stay there, either…
In the morning prayers, we say Elohai, haneshama shenatata bi tehora hi, “My God, the soul You have given me is whole.” At the end of the taharah ritual of preparing a body for burial, we say Tehora hi, “She is whole.” At birth we come in with a soul that’s complete; and at our death we have a soul that’s complete. In between those two times of absolute taharah is life, and we spend a lot of time being vulnerable, somewhere on that continuum between tahor and tamei.”
One of the tragedies for survivors of sexual violence is that, for so many of us, our experiences of violation prevent us from ever having an experience of spiritual boundariedness to begin with. How do we make choices that protect us when we have an inherently scarred and skewed understanding of what boundaries are? How do we imagine safety when physical and existential vulnerability is all we know? What access to the divine do we lose when we can’t experience boundaried wholeness in our own bodies?
This change of perspective was deeply illuminating for me. So much of my healing has focused on boundaries. Yet somehow, this framing of taharah helped me cross a threshold in my work to understand and integrate my trauma. For the first time in my life, I am learning to hold boundaries. I’m realizing that what I thought were boundaries before were actually walls. I’m also learning that what I thought was my natural inclination to connect deeply with others is sometimes actually a trauma pattern shaped by not having healthy boundaries. I used to believe that making myself completely open and vulnerable was what created connection. Now I’m learning that clear boundaries can help me live into the kinds of intimacy and connection I truly want.
I’ve learned that it’s very common for survivors to have such blasted boundaries that we don’t know when someone is approaching them – we only know when our boundaries have been crossed. A variety of practices have helped me to explore and re-establish my boundaries.
One practice has been consciously exploring different types of touch. Having my most intimate boundaries violated at such an early age meant that I never got to develop a true understanding of my ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ I never developed a healthy relationship with playful, affectionate, non-sexual touch, let alone erotic or sexual touch. The boundaries paradigm of Tazria-Metzora has invited me to pull back from touch with friends and loved ones so that I can learn to listen to what my body wants and consciously cultivate different forms of touch-based connection. By pulling back, I can honestly say ‘yes’ to the kinds of touch I truly want. In finding my ‘yes,’ I am also learning to identify my ‘no’ before my boundaries are crossed.
Another boundary practice offered by the torah portion is nidda, the period of separation during and after one’s bleeding time. Some people observe nidda by refraining from all touch for the duration of bleeding and for seven days after. I don’t strictly follow these rules, but I have experimented with taking space from my partner during and after my moontime. I usually sleep separately for a few nights. I spend a lot of time with myself reading, writing, and tending to sacred dreaming. This cyclical shedding of lifeblood is a powerful time; when I retreat from the world around me, my bleeding time becomes its own kind of sacred space, free of shame and full of connection with myself. Even after I finish bleeding, it takes a day or two to transition out of this liminal state and back into a boundaried state in which I can safely return to the world around me. Water immersions and other body-based rituals help me to make this transition. Tazria-Metzora’s wisdom is clear: When I am spiritually vulnerable, consciously limit what enters my physical and energetic fields. Before engaging with others again, make sure my boundaries are adaptable yet strong so that I can exercise agency over where I flow in the taharah-tum’ah continuum.
Tazria-Metzora has also helped me to be gentle with myself. I have spent so much of my life striving to feel whole and I can be hard on myself: Why is my PTSD still so active? Will I feel broken forever? I’m back to that again? In Temple times, the protocols required for purification differed depending on the source of tum’ah. Tazria-Metzora reminds me: Have patience and self-compassion. My journey is unique and it will take however long it takes.
How might the boundaries paradigm of Tazria-Metzora have helped me as an adolescent to maintain self-definition in the face of misogyny? How might Tazria-Metzora support people in learning about safer sex and seeking out not only medical but also spiritual support in cases of sexual violation or sexually transmitted infection? What possibilities might emerge for us all if we destigmatize the pus, blood, and discharge of Tazria-Metzora?
To all survivors: May Tazria-Metzora shower you with hope. May it remind you that you are sacred and whole, that your body is precious, and that your boundaries are yours to claim.
Cara Michelle Silverberg (she/her) is a Jewish educator and land-body dialogue facilitator living in the northeast woodlands of Turtle Island/North America. She facilitates learning experiences that help people to deeply listen to their bodies, our ancestors, and the stories of the land. She is committed to bodily and cultural sovereignty, community care, and the pursuit of passion, pleasure, and abundance.
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