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Pluralistic PerspectivesPaid Maternity Leave: Are We “Ready”?

Parshat Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-15:33

6,420 Jewish educators from day schools, campuses, summer camps, synagogues, and other areas of Jewish life…When asked one question—the names of day schools with paid maternity leave—only 11 US schools could be named. While the US is debating how to make America great again, one place to start might be by implementing any semblance of the maternity leave policies that the Canadian, Israeli, and European educators were able to tout in response to my question.

The Torah’s narrative is filled with questions, struggles, and lived reality related to maternity. Most of our biblical foremothers struggled with infertility. Great detail and attention is given to empowering women as mothers while recognizing the pain of those who are unable to give birth.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tazria, the Torah provides a formula for post-birth practice. Chapter 12 of Leviticus explains that a woman who gives birth to a male child shall afterwards be considered t’me’ah (which has many translations—among them, “impure”, with its negative connotation, or “ready”, with a more positive one) for a total of 40 days; after the birth of a female child, 80 days. During that period of time, she may not enter the Tabernacle in the wilderness (or, by extension, the ancient Temple).

While the difference in the two time periods is certainly of interest, I’d like to focus on the reason for the time period at all. The Talmud (in Tractate Niddah 31b) suggests that this period of time was implemented to benefit the new mother, to give her a period of time to recover without having to worry about the sexual needs of her husband. By ascribing the status of tumah to the new mother (like the time during and immediately after her menstrual period), the Talmud adds the prescription that her husband cannot ask for her to fulfill his sexual desires for at least 40 days.

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, former President and Chancellor of Yeshiva University, described the birthing mother as reaching the status of creator, a state so close to the Divine that she needs a period of time to recover from this elevated spiritual status and return to being a regular human being, According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th-century figure of contemporary Orthodoxy, after being subject to the forces of nature and the physically painful experience of childbirth, the mother needs a period of time and space to reflect and recover, before she can be in a frame of mind to engage sexually.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks relates this period of tumah to the halakhic principle of ”one who is involved in doing one mitzvah is exempt from doing another mitzvah”. In considering the prohibition against the new mother entering the holy space of the Tabernacle, God believes, Rabbi Sacks says, that the nurturing of one’s child supersedes the nurturing of one’s relationship with God. When this is most intense, during babies’ first weeks on earth, God wants to give space for mothers to focus their energies on their children.

No matter what the break is from—and whether it allows the new mother to recover physically, psychologically, or emotionally, or simply to bond with her new child—the biblical text mandates a maternity leave. A minimum of 40 days, almost 6 weeks, is built in as time for a woman to recover from childbirth and bond with her child. While this norm was introduced in biblical times, modernity is less kind.

The US, which considers itself a world leader politically and economically, is one of two countries in the world without any mandatory paid maternity leave–although we do have the companionship of Papua New Guinea. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) enacted in 1993 only guarantees that a mother (or father) can leave her job for 12 weeks, without compensation, and “sleep” (ha!) safely at night knowing that her job will still be available after three months of caring for her newborn.

We might have imagined that certainly Jewish institutions would still grant generous maternity leave; after all, Jewish tradition could not be more explicit about the mitzvah of procreation and the importance of children. Nonetheless, despite the example of this week’s parasha and the strong value placed on the role of the mother in the most traditional of Jewish homes, the assurance of paid leave is absent from our communities.

Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg is the Executive Director of Jewish Feminist Orthodox Alliance.

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