In isolation, it seems to be the ultimate in misogyny to call childbirth “unclean”. But those who tread that liminal space tell me that it is uncanny, miraculous, deeply risky and disturbing of normal routines. Menstruation or childbirth are powerful, whether in opposition to patriarchal powers, or alone.
Christians invented the ‘churching of women’ and the rules of ‘double guilt of Eve’ if the baby was a girl. Jewish traditions address the timing of sexual activity after childbirth, and reveres or sets apart women’s procreative power including the new gift of a girl child. What if this stuff serves the establishment and reinforcement of ‘boundaries’ for women to control?
Is it a punishment, or a gift, to set women apart with women at various times? Do we control procreation, or does procreative power sometimes control us? Ritual baths, and times excused from routines, are not simply punishments and exclusions from superior men’s worlds.
I even dare here to ask if the language of ‘abuse’ presupposes a legitimate ‘use’ of one person by another, and should be challenged ad fontes as Sarah Coakley is doing. I am reminded too of Ivan Illich’s ‘Shadow Work’ which challenged our categories of ‘productivity’ or ‘employment’ to define the ‘good’ in human living: the ‘eu’ in ‘eugenics’, ‘euthanasia’, or ‘utopia’.
Our world of fertility treatments, of neonatal and perinatal critical care and acute care, of genetic manipulation and of genetic choices formerly categorized as abortion, is flattened by utilitarian situation ethics. This world of clean and unclean challenges our scientism with purity, which is never achieved or possessed by anybody.
Back up into a worldview of setting apart, lifting up, making holy – and then move into the experience of half of humanity in being set apart, lifted up, brought close in intimate relationships, or released into separate identity. This can be construed in misogynist patterns. But it might convey celebration of menstruation and gestation.
It’s a short chapter, but a big topic. Who knows about post-partum depression? What’s the emotional experience of menstrual rhythm or pregnancy or childbirth or nursing? Do you think that new moms or old moms might have a word to say about this text? None of this is mine to define – but it might be yours!
1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
2 Speak to the people of Israel, saying: if a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean for seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean.
3 On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
4 Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.
5 If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean for two weeks, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days.
6 When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering.
7 He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female.
8 If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for a burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.