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Angela W. Buchdahl
Parashat Tazria-M’tzora

Angela W. Buchdahl  |  April 27, 2012

There was a pregnant congregant who came in to see me with an unusual concern.  She was uncomfortable about her upcoming baby boy’s bris.  But not for the usual reasons.  It wasn’t the primitive cultish or perhaps even violent nature of the bris ceremony that she was worried about.

She was a mother of three girls already and as a woman, she said,  “What I don’t like is the more I learn about the bris, the more it makes me feel like this whole tradition is stacked against girls, and it seems to favor the boys, and I’m very uncomfortable about that.”


So we had a conversation, and I could talk about the whole evolution of our tradition, but it’s true if you look at some of the historic documents.  Some of it does seem to certainly have a precedent favoring boys.


And in fact this is sort of ground zero, Parashat Tazria-M’tzora, for one of these things around circumcision.  This is not an easy Torah portion. It has some of our favorite things like discharge and menstruation and leprosy, but the beginning of it is even more fun.


I’m gonna share.  It tells of a famous section on gender disparity, saying that if a woman gives birth to a boy, she is impure for seven days, and then on the eighth day she should circumcise her son and bring him into the covenant of the Jewish people.  If, however, she gives birth to a girl, well then she’s impure for twice the amount of time, for fourteen days, and no ceremony is mentioned for bringing girls into the covenant.


There’s no getting around it. There is definitely some very challenging text that we have to struggle with in our portion.  And many of our laws, interestingly enough, when they were written, were actually quite progressive toward women at the time.  But they need to continue evolving if they are going to actually be progressive at the time that we’re in.


The reality is that probably, well I don’t want to say this, but our texts and all the interpretations of the texts and the commentaries on the texts for millennia have been written by men. So here’s something interesting.  Next month, we will mark the fortieth anniversary of the ordination of the first female rabbi, Sally Priesand.  She was ordained a month before I was born.


Now it radically changed the Jewish world that I was born into.  The one that I inherited was so different than the one of my father or my grandparents.  I got to grow up with the assumption of being able to hear women on the bimah.  Hearing women’s rulings on Jewish law.  Seeing women’s leadership in the Jewish community.


There were two Central Synagogue congregants who were instrumental, Barbara Friedman and Judy Hertz, in the creation of the very first women’s Torah commentary, where all the interpretations were written by female rabbis and scholars.  That beautiful and very intelligent Torah commentary was a paradigm shift, a new way of looking at the Torah through the lens of women.


Forty years in the span of the thousands of years of Jewish history is just the blink of an eye.  But, it’s a significant number if you think about forty years, what did we do for forty years, do you remember?  We wandered in the desert.


Why did we have to wander in the desert for forty years?  Well because God needed that generation that came from slavery, that continued to complain all the time, he needed them to die out.  And a new generation to be born that could actually see the world in a totally different way.


And so actually, forty years is the time it takes to change the mindset of an entire people.  And so we’ve seen it happen.  Forty years from Sally Priesand to where we are today.  But we still have some work to do.  And sometimes we get some help from unexpected places.


Well just a few weeks after that pregnant congregant came to me, there was a story that ran in the newspaper about a Manhattan defense attorney, a traditional Jew, who asked a federal judge, Kimba Wood, for something unusual.  He called it a “writ of possible simcha.”  He asked for this upcoming criminal trial if he might get possibly a day off in case his pregnant daughter would give birth to a boy.


“Should the child be a girl,” he said,  “not much will happen in the way of public celebration, some may even be disappointed,” he wrote.   “However, should the baby be a boy, well then hoo-hah!... Hordes of family and friends would descend on Philadelphia for the bris.”  He therefore made an application for “maybe to to to”—he actually put that in the writ— “a day off during the trial if the eighth day turned out to be a weekday.”


Judge Woods settled the matter with a handwritten note that got entered into the court record.  It said,  “Mr. Epstein could attend the bris in the joyous event that a son is born.  But the court,” she continued,  “would like to balance the scales. If a daughter is born, well then there will be a public celebration in Court, with readings and poetry celebrating girls and women.”


I sent this article to the pregnant congregant and she smiled.  And then soon after gave birth to a healthy baby boy.  And then less than 24 hours after that, her husband and her daughter came to this synagogue to receive her daughter’s bat mitzvah date.


So, our tradition continues to evolve and our sons and our daughters are equally celebrated with a unique role to play in the transforming covenant of God and the Jewish people.

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