Have you ever seen public restrooms in which tampons or pads are sold (forget about freely distributed)? While other personal hygiene products are freely displayed in the bathroom, even in private residences there is a tendency to hide the pads and tampons.
I have been puzzled more than once about the commonly accepted great shame associated with a woman's monthly period. I have asked myself more than once: If the monthly period was the estate of men, would there still be such cultural silencing and embarrassment?
The Torah, however, has different cultural codes and this week's Torah portion, "Metzora," deals at length with the monthly period, termed "niddah."
Kindly be patient...
"Hilchot niddah," the Jewish laws regarding menstrual purity, are complicated and difficult to understand. They seem intentionally complicated and difficult to understand as knowledge allows control, and the more complicated the knowledge, the more the ability to control is concentrated in the hands if a smaller group of people. As I am attempting to demonstrate, "hilchot niddah" can be understood as male domination of the female body, and their complexity works in the service of that control.
With my subsequent words and with your assistance, together we will undermine knowledge as a mechanism of repression and attempt to propose a simpler explanation to this complicated mechanism. As stated earlier, addressing issues of menstrual purity requires that we speak about our cultural "unspoken," and it demands patient and careful halachic examination. With the hopes that with that abjection and complexity will not dissuade us, I am setting out on the work before us.
The weekly Torah portion describes the ritual impurity of the female body (Leviticus 15:19-28): "And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be in her impurity seven days; and whosoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening... And if any man lie with her, and her impurity be upon him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed whereon he lies shall be unclean. And if a woman have an issue of her blood many days not in the time of her impurity, or if she have an issue beyond the time of her impurity; all the days of the issue of her uncleanness she shall be as in the days of her impurity: she is unclean... But if she be cleansed of her issue, then she shall number to herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean."
What can we learn from the weekly Torah portion regarding "the laws of menstrual purity"?
1. The bodily impurity of the menstruating woman is connected to the blood that is leaving her body.
2. The blood can leave her body in two fashions. 'Dam niddah' is "regularly-timed period blood" (we will call it "blood type A.") As opposed to it is an irregularly-timed bleeding that does not occur during a woman's regular menstrual cycle (we will call this "blood type B.")
3. "Niddah," regularly-timed period blood, causes seven days of impurity. A woman who bleeds "blood type B" will be impure as long as she is bleeding and seven additional days.
Do I understand my body?
While the impurities of the male body (also mentioned in our Torah portion) are for practical purposes halachically canceled by the sages of the Oral Torah, menstrual impurity laws continued to grow in quantity and complexity. Although the Biblical legislator left as taken for granted the fact that the power of a woman to determine the nature of her menstrual blood (who else besides her could possibly know what is happening inside her body), the Mishnaic and Talmudic sages transferred the responsibility to the hands of the learned men.
According to Chazal, the female body requires learned halachic examination. Following their methodology, a woman cannot know when the blood leaving her own body is regular menstrual blood and when it is the result of an unusual bleeding. In order to know with certainty which type of menstrual blood a woman is bleeding, she must bring a sample to the halachic "posek" (adjudicator) for inspection.
How does the posek know the world?
The "posek Halacha" has laws that attempt to domesticate nature, to try and empower him to feel that rules over reality and is not just ruled by it.
An entire tractate of the Mishna in both the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmud are dedicated to the Rabbinic laws of menstruation. "Masechet Niddah" offers a surprising and curiosity-stimulating system of methods for identifying feminine menstrual blood stains and distinguishing whether they are type A or type B. Truthfully speaking, there are additional categories of bleeding, but for now we can make do with these two types. The essence of the identification process is done by the shape and color of the blood stain.
In doing so, the halachic system attempted and succeeded in expropriating from women the simple and natural ability to know their own body. Since then and until today Jewish women are educated to presume that they do not understand what happens to them inside their own bodies and send from time to time their menstrual blood for inspection by a rabbi.
Success was incomplete
There were, and still are, communities in which laws of menstrual blood inspection by rabbis were not accepted, and women assist themselves and their friends in order to understand what happens to them inside their bodies, but the pressure on transferring the authority for menstrual blood exams never ceased.
A decree that did not repair a thing
In the third century CE, a sage by the name of Rabbi Zeira traveled back and forth between the Jewish communities in Babylon and the land of Israel. He transmitted the following tradition (Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Brachot 31A): "The daughters of Israel took upon themselves an extra legal stringency that if they find a mustardy drop of menstrual blood, they sit on it seven subsequent clean days."
Out of concern that women do not know how to distinguish between different types of menstrual blood, and are not always willing or able to search out a rabbi, it was decided that all female, menstrual bleeding will be interpreted as type B, and with its cessation a woman will wait seven clean days prior to submerging in the ritual bath, and then she will be able to return home and touch her husband. Since that decree onward a woman's monthly period decrees approximately two weeks of physical non-contact on the couple.
One would think that this stringency, with all its challenges, would put an end to woman running with their menstrual blood to the rabbis, as the legal decree sets that all types of blood will be de facto categorized as the most severe type and thus make extraneous the role of the rabbi as an examiner of entrails and blood. However, the Sages did not agree to concede control, and despite the stringency they found reasons why women should continue to be suspicious as to what their eyes see and skeptical to what their bodies feel.
I will not elaborate here on the explanations and the reasons, except to note that the bottom line remains difficult and sad: The decree ("takana") did not repair ("tikna") anything. The days of menstrual impurity grew from one to two weeks, and despite this the women continue to run to with the results of their examinations to the rabbi.
When culture overpowers nature
The laws of menstrual purity are a fascinating cultural phenomenon, even though they are saddening, as they are a stunning example of the ability of culture templates to manipulate nature.
Women who were not raised on the knees of "hilchot niddah" know how to naturally identify, in their body, the days of their period. Generally, even before their period arrives, women can identify changes in their body, know when their period will occur, when it occurs, and when it is over. The culture of "hilchot niddah" educated women to believe that they do not understand their bodies, that they don't really know what they are feeling, and that the existence of their period requires rabbinic confirmation.
The culture of "hilchot niddah" imposes a male rule over the female body.
And how does this affect us?
Despite the myth that Jewish menstrual laws are intentionally synchronized with the days of a woman's ovulation and built so that sexual relations between the couple are permitted on days when the woman can conceive, the sages of the Mishna and the Talmud did not even know of the existence of the ovulation process. Numerous and various types of Talmudic sources testify to their ignorance thereof. The sages of Israel did not have any secret knowledge, they, like everybody else, had the biological and physiological knowledge and expertise that was possible to have in the periods in which they lived.
Rabbi Zeira's stringency creates a situation in which many halachically observant women (around 20%) cannot conceive, as their ovulation period occurs during a time it is forbidden to have sexual intercourse. In the past these women were considered barren. Today they undergo hormonal treatments in order to adjust their bodies to this halachic stringency.
Two weeks of separation between husband and wife, a culture that encourages woman to stop believing in themselves and demands regular and embarrassing diagnosis by men – this is my issue. I am a feminist, and anything that enslaves and disrespects women is my issue.
But with extraneous and damaging medical treatments, doctors who work against their moral obligation and are willing to offer to women treatments that endanger their health and their life, and a governmental health system that allocated resources to causing this damage – this is also your issue. This is the issue of all of us.
And in the beit midrash of talkbacks
1. In the past few days, newspapers have been addressing the corrupt construction of the Holyland project in Jerusalem, and the weekly Torah portion addresses "tzaraat habayit" (leprosy of the home). Incredible, isn't it?
Anyone who lives in Jerusalem knew long ago that this housing compound was established in sin. Nothing, except bribery, could explain the ugly tumor that injured the Jerusalem skyline. There is not a single person in Jerusalem who thought that these were beautiful buildings and that it was considerations of the city's best interest that lead to their construction.
I have often fantasized about an evacuation-compensation project for the residents of these buildings. I think that Jerusalem deserves to be rid of this out-of-place ugliness. On the other hand, a structure named Holyland is a new, permanent type of "housing leprosy." A fancy monument to the ability of city leaders and elected officials to commit crimes of corruption.
2. "He carried himself with the demeanor of a Jew that was dressed in a three-piece suit, walking with a cane, entering this office, entering that office, entering another office. There was something about his behavior, about the way he carried himself, that was ugly."
Is it not true that if this sentence were not said by Ehud Olmert but by a European leader, the Anti-Defamation League would have already gone berserk? Apparently there is also "leprosy of the mouth."
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas
Click here to read this article in Hebrew