In Your Blood, Live!


This essay was written as a (preliminary) exploration of the theology and symbolism surrounding blood, menstruation, the Jewish purity laws and the dignity of female sexuality.

In Your Blood, Live! (Ezekiel 16:6) - Toward a Progressive Theology of Niddah

The large majority of contemporary writings on taharat hamishpacha and niddah focus on the experience of immersion and the subsequent days of purity (yemei tehorah). When one is in a healthy and loving relationship with one's spouse, the yemei tehorah are (often) a positive and love-affirming experience. Mikveh night and the subsequent (two) weeks hold the promise of sexual and emotional intimacy, open up the potential to conception (if the couple so desires) and guarantee physical closeness. There is the added bonus of (mikveh) date nights and of reinforcing a message that the female partner who underwent immersion is a beautiful and sensual being. One should also not forget to mention that marital intimacy within the framework of this religious observance can also lead to heightened spiritual experiences. All in all, it seems, that it is the yemei tehorah that the system of mikveh observance shapes positively.

But how about the yemei tum'ah (the days of impurity)? How does a woman in niddut (menstruation) feel about herself, her body and her partner during the week(s) of abstinence and harchakot ('distancings' enforced to guarantee abstinence)? Because obviously, in traditional Halacha, this is the crux of the original issur (Torah prohibition): 'do not approach a woman sexually in her niddah period' (Leviticus 18:19). And moreover, how do the yemei tum'ah affect her partner who is equally bound by the restrictions that the Halacha prescribes? This essay will attempt to explore the meaning of menstruation, marital abstinence and the relationship with one's body.

First of all, it is helpful to look at the function and meaning of blood in Judaism. Without understanding the apparent blood taboo that is ingrained in Biblical (and Rabbinic) thought, we cannot evaluate niddah in an intellectually honest way.

Judaism is concerned with blood because Judaism is obsessed with life. As Deuteronomy 30:19 states: 'choose life so that you and your descendants may live'. Blood is seen as the life-force of the animated being (be it human or animal) and hence, blood holds the essence of life and the potential of death (this idea was originally proposed by the Jewish feminist thinker Rachel Adler although she modified this in later writings).

In her seminal work, 'Purity and Danger', cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas posits that purity and impurity are very closely related. Purity happens when the cosmic order of things remains intact while impurity (or our experience of what is 'dirty') happens when that order is violated. A famous secular example she cites is that hair on one's head is deemed 'clean and normative' but hair found in the sink or in the shower is deemed 'dirty and disgusting' because it is not supposed to be there.

A similar case can be argued for blood in Jewish thought. Blood is at once intensely holy and intensely impure. It is holy when it is part of the normal cosmic balance, i.e. in the body, as a life-bringer. But when blood is spilt and it is shifted out of its normative context and into the context of death and dying, it becomes a ritual pollutant. Because then, blood signifies not life but death. Judaism is a religion of life, of sanctifying the Here and Now, of fulfilling our covenant in the earthly realm and life is supremely valued. It is not for naught that pikuach nefesh (the saving of another human being's life) overrides virtually all other commandments.

My understanding is that it is this fundamental worldview which informs many of Judaism's 'chukim' (statutes), the so-called 'irrational' commandments. Understanding the purity system means understanding the core values of our tradition. It explains the requirements for ritual slaughter (namely, spilling the blood and respectfully burying it in the sand), the requirements of separating meat (the symbol of death) and dairy (the staff of life), the moral concession in Genesis to the descendants of Noach to eat meat (while the original Divine plan is that we would all remain vegetarians) in order to curb their bloodlust and the purity laws related to menstruation, seminal emissions and other discharges. Judaism eschews the substance that taints us with death. Yet at the same time, blood is featured prominently in ritual sacrifice and in certain purifying practices of the Kohanim (Priestly class). As Mary Douglas suggests with her theory, I would posit that blood has a dual meaning in Jewish cosmology. It reminds us of the nexus between life and death.

When we look specifically at menstrual blood, this idea becomes more apparent. Although the ancients did not have a sophisticated knowledge of a woman's cycle, they did intuit that our flow and our fertility are somehow related. They also intuited that this was the case for semen and this is why sexual intercourse and especially seminal emissions rendered the man impure also. The Biblical system was egalitarian and logical: for natural discharges (menstrual blood and semen), both a man (the ba'al keri) and a woman (the niddah) would be rendered impure until nightfall. So, after one's menstrual period had ended, one would wait until nightfall to immerse in a mikveh. The same principle applied to males. Also, there was a second category of abnormal emissions (possibly of sexually transmitted diseases or unnatural bleedings). For males (the zav) and females (the zavah), this conveyed a higher degree of impurity. Logically so, since the concern of impurity is death and loss of potential life and arguably, it makes sense that a diseased physical phenomenon renders greater impurity than a natural, healthy phenomenon. In the case of the zav and zavah, they would count seven days after their emission and then immerse (also probably having the added benefit of it being a common sense profylactic practice).

The nexus between life and death is the key concept in understanding purity laws. In anthropology, we call these liminal moments - moments where we stand on a (symbolic) threshold and are placed in an (existentially) vulnerable position. Childbirth is a liminal moment that balances on the cusp of life and death, especially in antiquity. No surprise, then, that childbirth carries great impurity. At the same time, childbirth brings new life and is also seen as a great source of holiness. And so, what is holy can be impure and vice versa. Menstruation is a lesser example thereof. Every time a woman menstruates, she loses the potential for life: the uteral endometrium breaks down and rebuilds itself in anticipation for a newly fertilized ovum. Is it surprising then that we could consider menstruation such a liminal moment, where we brush up against death? And we could reconstruct our conception of niddah as something existing in acknowledgement of the miracle of our bodies, cycles and fertility.

The status of being tamei/temeiyah in Temple times excluded one from bringing sacrifices at the Tabernacle (Mishkan) or Temple (Beit haMikdash). Men were probably just as often 'impure' as women. The notion of being excluded from communal worship, at the axis mundi (worldpole) is not only negative. Tum'ah can be seen as a reflective and inward-oriented state in which we can rest, slightly disconnect from our community and engage with ourselves and immediate surroundings. Perhaps it is the state in which we contemplate lost things or our mortality. Tum'ah does not and should not signal physical or moral 'dirtiness'. It is unrelated to physical cleanliness or moral taint.

For the menstruant in pre-industrial society, her temeiyah might even have been a welcome relief, a lightening of her load of domestic burdens, An excuse to rest. For the couple who become tamei by virtue of their love-making, it might also have been a welcome reprieve from communal obligations and to be allowed, of sorts, to focus on each other until nightfall.

Am I an apologetic for this system? Absolutely. As a Progressive Jew who is at once vested in the Tradition, I take a maximalist view of kabbalat mitzvot (the acceptance of the commandments). Just as I believe that each Jew possesses the right to informed autonomy vis a vis the commandments, I also believe that each mitzvah has the potential to be transformative in our lives. Hence I would challenge and encourage each Jew to think intently about the beauty that each mitzvah can bring them. Before a mitzvah is deconstructed and discarded, perhaps it serves us well to consider its merits. Given my personal perspective, only when it is clear as daylight that a mitzvah violates its own integrity and our moral sensibilities, do I deem it unfit for my practice.

I am of course more than aware that the purity system in Biblical Judaism can carry many mysogynist overtones, as can the niddah system as later defined by Rabbinic law.
But I also believe the system can be redeemed. Even in our modern world, eons past the destruction of the Temple and the collapse of the majority of our purity laws, I believe that the concepts behind niddah still ring true. Also, I believe that adverse effects notwithstanding, the mitzvah can be practiced sensitively in a way that increases its beauty and meaning for both spouses. In a time where individuals can feel profoundly insecure about their physicality and about the place of intimacy in their lives and relationships, a Progressive and sensitive practice of niddah can teach women and men the value of their bodies and the virtue of patience.

It is up to us to make our Torah a torat chesed, a Torah of lovingkindness and empowerment. Taharat hamishpacha may not be for everyone but there can be much holiness found in this system. Niddah fulfils the promise recited under the wedding canopy: that both spouses shall be 're'im' and 'ahuvim': friends and lovers. This spiritual and physical discipline can invigorate a marriage and encourage mutual emotional growth. Thinking about the holy vessels that we occupy and what it means to integrate God, blood and sexuality gives power and a renewed understanding to the words of Ezekiel: 'in your blood, live!'

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