Our communal responsibility extends to poor pregnant women

“Any woman who gives birth must have her needs met and more.”

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That may sound like a sound-bite from Planned Parenthood or the Children’s Defense Fund, but I read those words in the writings of the Belzer Rebbe. The statement is not derived from any modern conception of the rights of women and children; it is from a passage in this week’s Torah portion (Tazria-Metzora) that, on the surface, appears to be about how women are ritually impure after giving birth.

The Belzer Rebbe follows the interpretation of Rashi, who noticed that the laws concerning the ritual purification of a woman who has given birth appear to be out of order. The Torah states:

“[The priest] shall offer [the mother’s offering of a sheep and a dove] before Adonai and make expiation on her behalf; she shall then be pure from her flow of blood. This is the Torah of one who gives birth to a male or female child. If she has insufficient means for a sheep, she shall take two pigeons or doves, one for a burnt offering and one for a purgation offering. The priest shall make expiation on her behalf, and she shall be pure  (Leviticus 12:7-9).

We would expect that the statement, “This is the Torah,” would come after both the description of the ritual for a wealthy woman and the ritual for a woman who “has insufficient means.” Why does the text imply that only the ritual for a wealthy woman is “The Torah”? Is the offering of the poor woman who can only bring pigeons or doves not also Torah? 

The classic answer is that the offering of the wealthy woman is the way that it ought to be for everyone – that is the Torah. The Torah acknowledges that there are poor women who give birth but cannot afford the prescribed offering, but that is a disgrace – it should not be that way.

The Belzer Rebbe taught, “In truth, ‘The Torah of one who gives birth’ is that she should have the means to bring the offering of a wealthy person. According to the Torah, any woman who gives birth must have her needs met and more. But, if it sometimes happens that ‘she has insufficient means’ this is not according to the Torah.”

Whose responsibility is it to make sure that her material and spiritual needs are met? The Torah implies that we should not expect God to provide for her. God has done enough by creating an alternate offering for the woman if nobody else provides for her.

The responsibility for making sure that the woman’s needs are met, of course, falls on all of us. As a famous statement from the Talmud declares, “All Israel is responsible for one another” (B. Shevuot 39a).

We can argue about how the community should provide for her: It can be done through government programs, it can be done by individuals or organizations. Our texts do not specify. Yet, there is no ambiguity in our tradition about communal responsibility: It is up to us to make sure that a poor pregnant woman is never disgraced.

We are responsible for each other, particularly for those in need, particularly for those who give life. No woman, regardless of who she is or how she came to be pregnant, should be left without all her needs (and more) met as she brings new life into the world.

RABBI JEFFREY GOLDWASSER is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, in Cranston. He is the author of the blog “Reb Jeff,” from which this d’var Torah is adapted.