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April 21, 2012 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Tazria-Metzora

This week’s Torah portion begins with a discussion of the laws applicable to women who have just had birth or menstruated (basically, they are ritually impure).

In the course of his discussion, Nachmanides said something that I didn’t expect to see: “a woman in the days of her menstruation is called niddah (shunned) because she was avoided by and kept distant from all people.  Men and women would not approach her, and she would sit alone and not speak with them, for even her speech was considered by them impure, and they regarded the dust upon which she stepped to be impure as the dust of the decomposed bones of the dead… Even her gaze was considered harmful… Thus it was the custom of menstruants to sit in a special tent, this being the intent of Rachel’s words to her father Laban [in Gen. 31:35  that she could not walk because “the way of women” was upon her).” (emphasis mine)

If I understand Nachmanides correctly, by using the term “was” he is suggesting that at the time of the Rachel/Laban exchange (i.e. before the Torah was given) menstruating women were treated as lepers because of some wacky pagan ritual purity concerns.

If he is right, the Torah’s ritual purity laws (which seem strict and sexist to modern eyes) may actually be a leniency compared to pre-Torah pagan practice.  It is as if the Torah is saying: “just as you can have slavery but can’t make it as inhumane as you like, you can have the ritual purity rules you are accustomed to, but can’t make those as inhumane as you would like.”

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