Between the Lines—Tazri·a-Metzora

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Leviticus Rabbah 14:1 (cf. Genesis Rabbah 8:1)
 
אשה כי תזריע הה"ד (תהלים קלט) אחור וקדם צרתנ
אמר ר' שמואל בר נחמן בשעה שברא הקב"ה אדם הראשון אנדרוגינוס בראו אמר ר"ל בשעה שנברא דו פרצופין נברא ונסרו ונעשה שנים גבים גב לזכר גב לנקבה איתיבין ליה (בראשית ב) ויקח אחת מצלעותיו אמר להן מסטרוהי כדכתיב (שמות כו) ולצלע המשכן

When a woman at childbirth [bears a male . . . ] (Lev. 12:2). There is an allusion to this: You have formed (lit. 'hemmed') me before and behind . . . (Ps. 139:5)

Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman said: When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, He made him a hermaphrodite (androginos).

Rabbi Levi said: When it was created, it was fashioned with two body-fronts, and He sawed it in two, so two backs were made—a back for the male and a back for the female. An objection was raised [to this statement from the verse]: And He took one of his ribs . . . [And the Lord God fashioned the rib . . . into a woman . . . ] (Gen.2: 21-22). Rabbi Levi answered: [The word you translate 'of his ribs' should be rendered] "of his sides," as it is written, and for the other side of the Tabernacle . . . (Exod. 26:20)

Many modern Jews have declared the opening verses of this week's Torah portion not just arcane, but misogynist. Indeed, the laws regarding postpartum impurity emerge from a priestly world of sacrifices and distinctions that seems distant today. Our ancient Sages, however, radically reinterpreted that passage and the creation of humanity in Genesis with playful translations that provide an opening for insights into the origins of gender. The result is a rabbinic tradition that actually affirms that our egalitarian worldview emerges organically from Jewish antiquity.

The midrash above, like its parallel source in Genesis Rabbah, opens with a subtle rereading of Psalm 139:5, which affords the Sages a textual basis for identifying the first human as a person with both male and female genitalia. This idea, the Greek roots of which are seen in the term androginos above, develops in this text from rabbinic wordplay that deliberately misreads "bears a male" (yaldah zakhar) as "girl-boy." Rabbi Levi's comparison of the tz-l-a' root as it appears in Genesis 2 and Exodus 26, then, represents a serious attempt to understand how the male-and-female human of Genesis 1 becomes two beings in the next chapter.

Studying this midrash today allows us the opportunity to challenge from within rabbinic literature those who criticize Conservative Judaism for trying to be both traditional and progressive regarding gender roles. To our right, some accuse us of merely reading our liberal social views into the Torah, as though no previous Jewish civilization had considered men and women created as equals. To our left, others who dismiss Judaism as a monolithically patriarchal religion remain ignorant of texts like this midrash, which offer a counter-history. Most importantly, though, this midrash ought to bolster the sense of our legitimacy in practicing a Judaism that represents an authentic expression of our rabbinic heritage from its evolution over two millennia.