Circumcision and the Mikvah: Parashah Tazria-Metzora

Why aren’t men required to immerse themselves in a mikvah? Women are after they have their period. But men are as well after they have wet dreams. However, although there is a difference between the reasons for immersion in a mikvah for males and females, the treatment is the same. On the other hand, if a woman gives birth to a female infant in contrast to a male infant, she is considered unclean or impure for twice the length of time as when she has a male infant.

2 Speak to the children of Israel, saying: If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean. בדַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר אִשָּׁה֙ כִּ֣י תַזְרִ֔יעַ וְיָֽלְדָ֖ה זָכָ֑ר וְטָֽמְאָה֙ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים כִּימֵ֛י נִדַּ֥ת דְּו‍ֹתָ֖הּ תִּטְמָֽא:
4 And for thirty-three days, she shall remain in the blood of purity; she shall not touch anything holy, nor may she enter the Sanctuary, until the days of her purification have been completed. דוּשְׁלשִׁ֥ים יוֹם֙ וּשְׁל֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים תֵּשֵׁ֖ב בִּדְמֵ֣י טָֽהֳרָ֑ה בְּכָל־קֹ֣דֶשׁ לֹֽא־תִגָּ֗ע וְאֶל־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ֙ לֹ֣א תָבֹ֔א עַד־מְלֹ֖את יְמֵ֥י טָֽהֳרָֽהּ:
5 And if she gives birth to a female, she shall be unclean for two weeks, like her menstruation [period]. And for sixty-six days, she shall remain in the blood of purity. הוְאִם־נְקֵבָ֣ה תֵלֵ֔ד וְטָֽמְאָ֥ה שְׁבֻעַ֖יִם כְּנִדָּתָ֑הּ וְשִׁשִּׁ֥ים יוֹם֙ וְשֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים תֵּשֵׁ֖ב עַל־דְּמֵ֥י טָֽהֳרָֽה:

(Leviticus 12:2-5)

And why circumcise boys at eight days but not girls as takes place in parts of Africa?

3 And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. גוּבַיּ֖וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֑י יִמּ֖וֹל בְּשַׂ֥ר עָרְלָתֽוֹ:

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg suggests that the laws of purity, even in their truncated form above after the destruction of the temple, represented a binary view of the world in which impurity was associated with death and purity with the affirmation of life. “Life—especially in a state of vitality—is always pure. Death, on the other hand, brings on a condition of ritual impurity.” Thus, presumably, spilling one’s seed in a wet dream represented the death of semen that potentially could become a human being when united with a female egg. And menstruation meant the end of a cycle in which the opportunity to fertilize a female human egg was lost. “Decay, dissolution, or processes that fail to create life are labeled impure.” 

But why the double infirmity of impurity for the mother if the woman gives birth to a female child? And if purity is life affirming, why is not birth considered an act of purification rather than the commencement of a period of impurity? If impurity means one is closer to death, does it mean a woman is doubly likely to die in childbirth if she gives birth to a female infant than a male infant? I know of no such statistic in either the ancient or the contemporary world.

In fact, when it comes to the risk of infant mortality, it is higher in boys than in girls in virtually all parts of the world. In fact, males are given an advantage precisely because of this. Male sperm are given a head start in traveling up the uterus. More male babies are conceived than females. Of those conceived, fewer male fetuses survive than female fetuses. Nevertheless, the sex ratio at birth still favours boys. Births are male-biased. The natural sex ratio at birth is around 105 boys per 100 girls. And although more male infants are born than females of the many more conceived, by the age of two years old, assuming there has been no intervention in favouring boys over girls, there are more female children than males. Among twins, the probability of dying in the first year is 46/1,000 higher among males than females (323 versus 277 per thousand). Among opposite sex twins, the male-female difference in mortality is only 27 per thousand.

The reality is that females have a better grasp on life than males. They have more endurance and quickly pass life expectancy of males in the first few years of birth. So, to repeat, why if purity is identified with life affirmation are mothers considered impure for twice the length of period than if they give birth to boys?

There are at least two possible and opposite answers. One is that females are equated with a failure to preserve and reproduce life at half the value of males, a proposition that stands out as blatantly counter intuitive and ill fitting with any common sense. Alternatively, purity is not associated with life affirmation and impurity with death. Instead, there is a glimmer of truth in the Greenberg thesis. Impurity is not associated with death and dissolution but with risk of death and destruction.

In human biology, male sperm and male fetuses have less chance of survival than female sperm or fetuses. Then why twice the period of purification if a female infant is born? I believe the answer is that the mother abstains from a longer period of intercourse and has a longer period of bonding with the female infant. By symbiosis, this reinforces her own general propensity to greater endurance and greater chances of survival. Female-female bonding reinforces life’s chances and reduces risk of death.

I do not believe that this has ever been measured. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has a proper study even been conceived to determine whether or not this is empirically true. But it does provide one hypothetical answer which Yitz Greenberg’s thesis does not. Further, it might explain why males are circumcised at eight days and females are not.

I suggest there are four levels to explain male circumcision and female non-circumcision in associating with reaffirming risk reduction with respect to death and risk enhancement with respect to life. On the biological level, early male circumcision confers both immediate and long-term health benefits. The procedure is highly protective against multiple medical conditions, including urinary tract infections, inflammatory conditions of the penis, and sexually transmitted viral diseases such as those caused by human papillomaviruses, herpes simplex virus type 2, and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In addition, male circumcision significantly reduces the risk of penile cancer and cervical cancer in female partners.

However, for many, the reduction in risk may not compensate for the pain deliberately inflicted on a helpless infant child eight days old. For some, it is anathema that one would intentionally hurt one’s own baby. And it is certainly a myth that the infant feels relatively little pain. In fact, the imprinting on the body and the subconscious memory of a male child the fact, as the child will later learn, that his father (or his proxy) performed the circumcision, delivers to the child a lifelong message – even a loving father, and out of love, can inflict pain and harm his son. The result is the destruction of any absolute faith or trust in another. After all, if your father can hurt you when you are a helpless infant, and the father who does so dearly loves you, then anyone can harm you. At eight days old, the body of a male Jewish infant is imprinted with a reservoir of distrust that will teach the child to some degree to always retain a degree of wariness and skepticism. Circumcision is a metaphorical vaccine to inhibit surrendering oneself to absolute faith in an Other.  

There is another lesson delivered at a more symbolic level, one in relationship to masculinity and the other in relationship to femininity. In relationship to one’s masculinity, circumcision is a symbolic cutting of one’s alpha masculine propensity down to a lesser size. On the female symbolic level, male circumcision is a token gesture to inform males that, in spite of their size and strength, the more proximate gender to reducing the risk of death and enhancing the prospects of life are embodied in the female. The female is the superior gender.

That is the meaning of the tale of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden rather than the inverse that male theologians have given it by painting Eve as a temptress. In fact, without Eve, Adam would have remained a nerd believing that he was akin to God because he could name and classify the world of objects. But real human life is not based primarily on consciousness of objects, but on self-consciousness of oneself and, even more importantly, empathy with another. Emotional intelligence is of greater value to the enhancement of life than mere cognitive intelligence.

Circumcision, the mikvah and other acts of purification do not mean identifying purity with life but with reducing the risk of death and enhancing the prospects of a full life.


2 comments on “Circumcision and the Mikvah: Parashah Tazria-Metzora

  1. Sam Izenberg says:

    These explanations are felicitous and appealing if we wish to understand Judaism as not worried about and thus diminishing of femininity. But centuries of practice seem to support the opposite idea. Women are in fact seen as “temptresses”, are not allowed to sing in front of males, must cover or shed their hair, and are clearly relegated not just to separate but to lesser places in worship….among many other things, i imagine, that I am not aware of. Are all these practices sepawrate from the Mitzvot and based on a misunderstanding ot it?

  2. That is my belief – that throughout the medaeval period, the dominant interpretation has ben the opposite of the meaning – but there are exceptions in the commentaries. For a more scholarlu answeer, I would have to consult with my daughter.


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