Reappropriating the Taboo

Bringing new meaning to the status of a menstruating woman.


Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Theologian Elizabeth Dodson Gray notes: “Women’s bodies may be the hardest place for women to find sacredness” (Sacred Dimensions of Womens Experience, 1988, p. 197). Our society sends negative messages to women from earliest childhood about the expected perfection of their physiques and the disappointments of any flaws in the female form. Parashat M’tzora, then, with its focus on menstrual impurity (15:19-24), seems to impart the same kind of unfavorable sense. Rejecting our own received biases and patriarchal assumptions about menstruation, however, can help us form a contemporary view of these so-called taboos.
torah, womens commentary
What the Torah deems as tamei (“impure”) or tahor (“pure”) is not actually attached to cleanliness, even though they are often translated as “unclean” and “clean.” These Hebrew words are ritual terms, meant to designate those in a physical and spiritual state unable to enter the Mishkan (Tabernacle; and in later times, the Temple), or those able to do so. Those who are considered tamei are taboo (which is not what we think of as “bad”), meaning that they cannot enter the sacred space; and the thing that causes them to be ineligible to enter is also understood to be taboo.

Anthropologists note that taboos are the system by which a culture sets aside certain objects or persons as either sacred or accursed. Such objects or persons inspire both fear and respect. Penelope Washbourn writes: “Menstruation symbolizes the advent of a new power that is mana. . . ‘sacred.’ … A taboo expresses this feeling that something special, some holy power, is involved, and our response to it must be very careful” (in WomanSpiritRising, 1989, p. 251). This mixed message of fear and power, contact and avoidance, actually dominates all the Torah’s passages around blood.

Blood, which is to be avoided in the realm of eating and sex, is the same substance that atones for the community in the sacrificial system, and it binds the individual male child to the Israelite covenant through circumcision. Blood both sustains and endangers; it is the medium of plague or deliverance. Thus blood–like every potent symbol–has the double quality and the twin potential of birth and decay, purity and impurity.

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Elyse Goldstein is the Rabbinic Director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto.

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