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Parshas Tazria-Metzora (5777)

Taboo or not Taboo:The Jewish "Family Purity" Laws

In this week's double Torah portion we find a discussion of the laws regarding a woman who has her monthly period - laws which have since become known as the "Family Purity" Laws (Taharas Hamishpachah in Hebrew):

"When a woman has a discharge - her discharge from her flesh being blood - she shall be in her state of separation for a seven-day period ..... If she ceases her flow, she must count seven days for herself, and afterwards she can be purified"(Leviticus 15:19-28).

Basically, the law described above (see also Leviticus 18:19) – as it pertains to our times - is as follows: During her menstrual flow and for seven days after, a woman is niddah - from the Hebrew word naddad, which means "separated" - and she is physically off-limits to her husband. For those days, the physical separation is total: no touching, no sitting on a swing together, no sleeping in the same bed. After immersing herself in a mikvah, or ritual bath, a woman is no longer a niddah, and she and her husband are permitted to approach each other again.

As Rabbi Manis Friedman writes in an article titled The Monthly Marriage on Chabad.org:

“Through the ages, all sorts of explanations have been given for the laws described in Leviticus - some bordering on the mystical, others more practical - but all of them have one thing in common: Separation protects and nurtures the intimate aspect of marriage, which thrives on withdrawal and reunion. In fact, in most cultures throughout the world, the ancients practiced varying degrees of separation between husband and wife during the woman's menstrual period. Some, such as certain tribes of American Indians, actually had separate living quarters, menstruant tents, where a woman would stay during her period. Later, these customs deteriorated into myths, taboos, fears, superstitions, hygienic arguments, and other rationalizations, in an attempt to make sense of a delicate and sensitive subject.”

And the same has unfortunately happened to our own Jewish Family Purity Laws as well. When we read or hear about the laws of niddah, and we are told that a woman who has her period becomes "impure" or "unclean", we tend to automatically discount the law as antiquated and irrelevant - like some type of ancient taboo that the primitive and backward Israelites practiced 2000 years ago - knowing what we know today about the physiological process of menstruation, that it is a purely natural process.

And then there's the mikvah and all the negative associations connected with it.

Some uninformed women still think that mikvahs are filthy, disgusting places where women who are "dirty" from having their periods go to get clean.

Additionally, the idea of abstaining from one's spouse for a period of time each month seems incredibly restrictive and oppressive, and seems to run counter to conventional wisdom in terms of developing a healthy, physically and emotionally balanced love relationship.

And on top of all this, there is the underlying sentiment that some women (feminists?) feel that the entire body of laws governing the woman's period and ritual uncleanliness, is just another example of the patriarchal character of much of the Torah's laws, in which women are "put in their place" through a variety of laws and rituals that serve to subjugate and stigmatize them.

“THE RED TENT” - FOR WOMEN ONLY

Enter “The Red Tent”, the "Biblical novel" written by Anita Diamant (in 1997). The book describes, among other things, the ancient ritual associated with a women's menstrual period, and how it was then practiced by our Matriarchs, Rachel and Leah and their daughter Dinah. The book enjoyed immense popularity, especially in Jewish circles.

Now I am sure that there are many reasons for this, not the least of which that Diamant, through her amazing writing ability and imaginative faculty, was able to fill in the blanks of Dinah's life, giving her so much more presence than the mere few lines mentioned about her in the Torah.

But I also theorize that for many Jews, and for many Jewish women in particular, the underlying achievement and success of the "Red Tent" was Diamant's ability to put a new and more "woman-friendly" face on the entire concept and ritual of niddah and the separation period.

We all know that Jewish women - from the Matriarchs of the Biblical period all the way down to our times - have been practicing this strange ritual during their monthly periods. And we also know that for the better part of 3000 years, each and every Jewish community built for itself a mikvah in which women would immerse upon the completion of their seven days.

And it wasn't only in times of peace and prosperity that the Jews built mikvahs. On top of Masada, where the Jews were fighting for their lives against the might of the entire Roman Empire over 1900 years ago, they found the time and resources to build not one, but two mikvahs. And we have stories of Jews behind the Iron Curtain who risked their lives to build mikvahs, so as to be able to keep the Family Purity Laws as prescribed in the Torah. So we all know that the niddah and mikvah rituals are very much a part of the history and legacy of our people.

And Anita Diamant, through her depiction and description of Rachel's and Leah's "red tent" ritual, allowed us to see this difficult concept in a way that we could be more comfortable with.

As she portrayed it, the menstrual period, spent together with all the other women in the red tent apart from their husbands, was a special time for the Jewish woman that only she could appreciate, and about which her husband was entirely clueless. The very first time a woman had her period, she would be initiated into this for-women-only ritual with a special ceremony involving a specific idol that was chosen for the occasion, thus entering into this secret world which was only understood by women.

Diamant's description of the niddah ritual made the whole thing sound so cozy and inviting, with all the special things that women can do by themselves in the Red Tent without being bothered by their less knowledgeable husbands.

WHAT DOES ANITA REALLY BELIEVE ABOUT A "NIDDAH"?

Of course, I am sure you realize that Anita Diamant's book, "The Red Tent", although loosely based on the Biblical narrative, is a work of pure fiction; a fact which the author herself attests to in her preface to the book.

The reality is that the Matriarchs were not idol worshippers, G-d forbid, as the many statements and stories about them that are recorded in the Torah will show. And, unlike Diamant's fanciful depiction of Rachel's and Leah's husband in the book, in real life our forefather Jacob was undoubtedly very much "clued in" to this most basic and important Biblical ritual, considering that he was an extremely holy person with whom G-d spoke on many occasions. (And Jacob probably didn't smell horrible either - though I can't be 100% sure - unlike the way he is portrayed in the book!)

So what then was the niddah ritual really all about - in Biblical times as well as throughout the centuries - and how does it talk to us today?

In truth, much has been written about the meaning and symbolism behind the niddah period and the resultant separation of husband and wife. But let me just quote one passage from a book I read which will hopefully shed some light on the tremendous symbolism and relevance of this ancient ritual:

"Fundamentally, mikvah is not about "uncleanness", but about human encounters with the power of the holy. The Torah prescribes immersion not only for women after menstruation, but also for men after seminal emissions. The scribe who works on a Torah scroll must immerse himself before writing G-d's name. All converts to Judaism are required to immerse themselves in the mikvah, marking their rebirth as members of the people of Israel. And some observant Jews - men and women - go to mikvah in preparation for Yom Kippur, when one has the opportunity to become "dead" to past sins and begin the year with a pure heart.

"According to the Talmud, the ultimate source of all water is the river that emerged from the [Garden of] Eden. By immersing themselves in the mikvah, people participate in the wholeness of Eden and are reborn as pure as Adam and Eve. Mikvah also represents the physical source of life – the womb - from which humans enter the world untouched by sin."

Believe it or not, the writer of these words is none other than ... Anita Diamant ... in her book, "The New Jewish Wedding" (page 151). And the symbolism of niddah that she describes is just a tip of the iceberg of what this ancient ritual really represents.

THE ANCIENT MIKVAH AND THE MODERN WOMAN

In reality, there is so much depth and meaning and practical wisdom in the Family Purity Laws to which every modern Jewish man and woman - whether or not he/she is observant - can relate.

In our day and age, when the divorce rate is well over 50%, and when we are looking for any remedy that we can find to "spice up" our relationships so that they don't become stale and lose their excitement - we truly need all the help we can get.

In a well-publicized article some years ago in Reform Judaism Magazine, Jane Solomon wrote of her experience practicing the age-old niddah laws and immersing in a mikvah for the very first time in her life. She wrote that she was initially quite skeptical and nervous about the whole thing, but she decided to go through with it anyway. And she found that, as irrational as the ritual had initially sounded to her, the feeling of closeness to G-d that she felt during her immersion in the mikvah and the "honeymoon effect" produced by the niddah separation and subsequent reunion made the whole process extremely fulfilling and worthwhile. (You can read this amazing article for yourself online at: here ).

Now I know that these "Family Purity Laws" and the mikvah immersion are still very far from the minds and worldview of most modern Jews in the Western world in which we live. Yet I do think that because the niddah and mikvah rituals have been a major part of our Jewish tradition for over three millennia (!), and even today are practiced by many Jews who are not Torah-observant but who see this monthly separation as a beautiful way of bringing back the romance in their relationships - we owe it to ourselves to at least explore this age-old ritual.

And while we can definitely enjoy Anita Diamant's fictional depiction of the niddah ritual, there are some really good books out there that make for truly fascinating reading and which reveal the true story behind this most misunderstood of Jewish rituals.

The best book on the subject of mikvah and the niddah separation period, in my humble opinion, is Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's Waters of Eden. Rabbi Kaplan takes a most difficult subject and explains it in an extremely user-friendly way that is just a pleasure to read. Another good work on the subject is the book Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology, edited by Rivkah Slonim. Here you will find a collection of almost fifty essays and stories about the mikvah from contemporary Jewish thinkers, men and women, who share their thoughts on this ancient ritual as well as their own personal experiences as they took their first "plunge" into the mikvah. These two books are available online and at your local Jewish bookstore.

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