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Discussing Niddah, Mikveh, Family Purity
Joseph C. Kaplan (Sh'ma, 11/205, January 9, 1980)
At certain times in Jewish history, an observant Jew was often described one who complied with the laws of Shabbat, kashrut and taharat hamishpacha (T.H.). The first two need no translation; the third, however though traditionally on par with the others, is today comparatively little known or discussed.
Literally, T. H. means "the purity of the family," and in practical terms refers to all the laws and mores governing sexual behavior between husband and wife, with special emphasis placed on those laws proscribing sexual activity during niddah (the period of menstruation plus seven days) and the woman's subsequent t'vilah (immersion) in the mikveh (ritual bath). The laws are quite specific and detailed, and like those of Shabbat and kashrut, cover almost every eventuality from the most mundane to the most personal and intimate.
Disturbingly though, unlike its partners about which much has been written and even more spoken, T.H. seems to suffer, notwithstanding certain exceptions, from what appears to be almost a conspiracy of silence in the contemporary Jewish community. On a personal level this was vividly demonstrated during my sixteen years of yeshiva education; never was I offered a course dealing with T. H. on any level, and it was not mentioned in, or indeed was often consciously deleted from, other courses. I guess the idea was that nice Jewish boys don't discuss these matters, although, of course, it was expected that after marriage we would fully observe.
Ritual observance affects one's sexuality
Moreover, even when discussed, euphemisms are often so widespread that sometimes it is hard to discern what the real topic is. An almost humorous example of this is a 1979 article by a Lubavitcher rabbi in the Jewish Press supposedly on T. H. where no derivative of the word "sex" was ever used. In fact, even the term "marital relations" was not used until the penultimate paragraph, by which time the reader was presumably in a daze. If such is the nature of the discussion, then perhaps it is better to have none.
Indeed, even such a perceptive observer as Rachel Adler seems to have missed one critical point that T. H.'s effect on the sexual practices of its adherents is of such major and critical consequence that serious public study and discussion of this effect is necessary. It is therefore unfortunate that Mrs. Adler, in her justifiably noted essay, Tum'ah and Toharah: Ends and Beginnings, does not deal at all, other than in a merely descriptive fashion, with the sexual aspect of tumat niddah (the ritual impurity of the menstruating woman). More significantly, in an addendum to the essay (Response, No. 18), she justifies this omission by writing that tumat niddah should not be considered outside of the general cycle of tumah and taharah, and suggests that the very act of isolating T.H. (whose nomenclature she supposes to be a later day invention since it does not appear in classical sources) as a separate category in this general cycle sowed the seeds of discord which feminist are now reaping. Thus, she writes that "whereas tumat niddah had been a way for women to experience death and rebirth through the cycle of their own bodies, it became distorted into a method of controlling the fearsome power of sexual desire, of disciplining a mistrusted physical drive."
What are the consequences of observance?
Nonetheless, while this analysis and argument might perhaps be theoretically correct, what Mrs. Adler ignores is the immutable fact that even before T. H. became isolated into a separate category, an inherent by-product of observing the laws of tumat niddah was always the cyclical prohibition and permissibility of sexual relations between husband and wife. This absolute consequence is significantly different from those of other tumot in that it is a regular monthly event which has an immediate effect on one of the most personal, intimate and important aspects of one's being. Hence, not to deal with this very human situation seems to be closing one's eyes to the real world.
In this issue of Sh'ma, therefore, we seek to begin to come to grips with the heart of this area; namely, how real people are affected by, and respond to, T. H. Thus, one article by an Orthodox woman who observes T.H presents her very personal feelings about the reactions to it; another by an otherwise observant woman explains, for obvious reasons anonymously, why she no longer goes to mikveh. Blu Greenberg, a contributing editor of Sh'ma, in an article excerpted from her forthcoming book, discusses some of her reasons for observing T. H., analyzes its differing effects at various stages of life, and posits several suggestions for possible refinement of the laws. And, taking a look at this topic from a somewhat different perspective, Rabbi Laura Geller of U.S. C. 's Hillel House gives one Reform woman rabbi's thoughts on this subject.
Difficult to discuss, but we must
Gathering material for this issue brought to my attention several interesting facts about people's feelings towards T.H. First, it became clear that there are about as many views as there are people who are aware of it. Thus, for example, women who observe solely because their husbands insist that they do are not represented, and neither are women who have only positive feelings, couples who accept either sexual abstinence or mikveh but not both, or married Orthodox women who have never observed. Moreover, women who have stopped going to mikveh have done so for many reasons; only one is presented here. And, of course, men also have unique viewpoints which are not included.
One other category of women not represented deserves special mention: single women who observe. That such women exist is a fact; indeed, a number of them were asked by an Orthodox rabbi (who counseled them on this matter) to write an article for this issue, and all refused even though anonymity was promised. I was told that they felt embarrassed not only that the matter was brought up but even that the rabbi remembered who they were and what they discussed with him -- an interesting fact in itself, and one ripe for later examination. As to all these unrepresented groups we hope that the discussion begun here will continue, with other views presented and examined.
I also discovered that the reluctance of single women to write was not unique. It was difficult obtaining any article revealing personal feelings; many prospective authors said they simply could not do it, although one of them tried hard to do so for many months. In fact, even those women who did write said that it was more difficult than they expected to express on paper what they wanted to say. Nonetheless, the articles, we think, treat this complex subject honestly, openly and sensitively.
Perhaps, if the Jewish community would be more open in discussing this topic, some of the difficulty in expressing feelings about it would dissipate. We hope this issue will serve that cause.
Observance despite reservations
I am writing this article from the standpoint of a strictly observant Jewish woman whose family has been observant for generations. As such, I was strongly influenced and molded by my background and never once did I doubt that I too, would follow in this tradition. It was, therefore, a priori assumption that once married I would practice the laws of taharat hamishpacha. Knowing this, I do not feel the need to justify to myself philosophically why I should observe these laws, but rather I do feel the necessity to honestly confront some troubling questions and emotions.
I must admit that I am ambivalent about these laws. For the best part of twenty six years my observance of many rituals was and remains a source of great satisfaction. The gap between the knowledge of the stated religious ideal and my capacity to reach that ideal seldom caused intellectual discomfort. For the first time however I am faced with a ritual whose observance leaves me simultaneously disturbed and uplifted. In this case, the reconciliation between my awareness of the stated ideal and my capacity to reach that ideal requires a much greater effort.
Since these laws revolve around regulating our sexual desires and behavior, which in today's society probably seems quite anachronistic to some and unnecessary to others, the "reaching" becomes all the more difficult. Living in a culture where we are constantly bombarded by blatant and subtle sexual references in advertisements, movies, clothing, etc. and where liberal sexual mores seem to be the norm, the notion of a husband and wife having to discipline their sexual desires is bothersome, to say the least. In addition, turning to control one's sexual behavior, especially on a two week on-two week off cyclical basis puts an unnatural emotional and physical stress on a marriage. For example both my husband and I have discovered that the tense moments and the infrequent quarrels seem to occur when I am a niddah and we are deprived of the comfort of physical contact.
Feelings of disappointment and emptiness
I use the word "unnatural" to describe a situation that poses a disturbing conflict for me. On one hand, as an observant Jew, I accept quite readily the Divine wisdom implicit in each commandment. If God mandated it, it was with good reason. On the other hand, if God's understanding of human nature is so far superior to ours why then do the laws of taharat hamishpacha seem to run counter to my basic biological urges? In that context, these laws are "unnatural." To observe them requires that my husband and I completely schedule our desires and needs into a set time period and then suppress those same needs and desires in the subsequent time period.
The termination of the niddah state occurs after seven full days have elapsed from the cessation of a woman's menstrual flow and culminates with the woman immersing herself in a ritual bath or mikveh. The performance of the ritual often evokes in me a certain feeling of disappointment and emptiness at my failure to achieve any spiritual "high." I remember quite the emotional letdown I experienced after going to the mikveh prior to my wedding. Having been taught that the act of immersion would suddenly transform my status from tumah to taharah (from ritual impurity to ritual purity), I naturally anticipated an overwhelming surge to occur. Needless to say, I was somewhat disappointed and puzzled when it did not happen. The full implications of this metamorphosis escaped me at the time. From a more rational standpoint, the whole process struck me as being somewhat enigmatic and magical. After spending the previous eleven years in a state of perpetual niddus (that of a menstruating woman), within a half hour that state was altered, merely by bathing thoroughly, followed by a ritual immersion. Somehow the process did not seem to be commensurate with the change it produced.
Observance also has immediate benefits
Yet in all honesty, I must admit that there is something quite gratifying both sensually and spiritually in the performance of this mitzvah (i.e. mikveh). When all is said and done, I appreciate the time I must take to ready myself for the mikveh. There are few moments in the course of my daily routine when I truly feel like a woman, unrelated to my household and mothering duties. The one time when I do experience this is when I prepare for and immerse in the mikveh. After all, what better way to become aware of my femininity than by preoccupying myself with the cleansing, both physically and spiritually, of my body, which in this case is necessary because I am a woman?
In spite of my inability to reach any lofty spiritual heights, I nevertheless have experienced, over the years, a gradual change in attitude. That my husband and I are able to handle the responsibility of preserving a certain stability within our marriage, due in large part to our observance of the laws of taharat hamishpacha, irrespective of the discomfort involved, never ceases to satisfy us. In a much broader sense, I know that I am part of a continuing tradition; women for thousands of years have been performing the same mitzvah. It is no small wonder then, that I feel a strong sense of kinship with my great grandmother and other Jewish women I have never known due simply to our common performance of this unique mitzvah.
In the four years we've been married, neither my husband nor I have found this set of laws easy on our libidos or nerves. Neither of us feel, however, that that is any reason to cease the observance. Couples we know, happily married for thirty years or more have attributed the success of their marriages to the constant discipline exacted by the laws of taharat hamishpacha. While I am still too young and am married too few years to pass such judgment, I can only hope that in thirty years time I, too, will honestly say the same.
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