Given that rabbinic laws of family purity alternately repel and fascinate me, I recently decided to confront my prejudice and attended a panel discussion on “Exploring Contemporary Understandings of Niddah” at last week’s Mayyim Hayyim conference on all things mikveh.
While I’m offended by the idea of clean and dirty or pure and impure when it relates to a woman’s body, as a woman who grew up during feminism’s Second Wave, I’m also open to exploring whether or not these laws could actually mean something to me.
Once I left the yeshiva world I gradually realized that Jewish law could be dynamic, while at the same time staying true to its original intent. The rabbis were full of common sense and they applied their smarts to ensure Jewish continuity. For example, it’s not a big leap to figure out that the practice of niddah is all about creating optimal conditions for a woman to conceive. Judaism does not continue without Jewish babies.
The Mayyim Hayyim panelists were an eclectic group whose practice of niddah ranged from traditional to idiosyncratic. One couple completely separated and avoided directly passing objects to one another. Another couple made it a point to make love the night after mikveh immersion to share symbolically the mayyim hayyim — the living waters with another. Another practiced a form of niddah that involved intentional separation, but was not punctuated by an immersion.
As the panelists shared their personal challenges that sometimes come with observing the laws of family purity — crankiness, mood swings of both partners, and aching desire — I thought about Gloria Steinem’s 1978 classic “If Men Could Menstruate.” She writes:
Military men, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation (“men-struation”) as proof that only men could… be priest and ministers (“how could a woman give her blood for our sins?”) or rabbis (“without the monthly loss of impurities, women remain unclean”).
But what stuck me with me in real time was the subtext that the men on the panel were acutely aware of — I’d go as far as saying experiencing — their wives’ monthly cycles. Niddah created a rhythm in their relationships and, quite frankly, it kept their sex lives on track.
I know I speak for a lot of couples when I say that sometimes life gets so hectic that my husband and I will suddenly realize that we haven’t been together for weeks. That’s why marriage counselors may advise couples whose sex lives are practically extinguished to schedule time to make love. Practicing niddah doesn’t offer any guarantees against adultery, but I think taking the time to prepare for an immersion is a lot more romantic than checking off lovemaking on a “to do” list.
One of my favorite takeaways from the Mayyim Hayyim conference was that niddah doesn’t have to have top billing as a cleansing ritual. It’s actually a brilliant strategy to keep the sex alive in a marriage. And it aligns with feminist sensibility in that women determine when and where to have sex.