Excerpt reprinted with permission of author and Ritualwell.
As a young Orthodox woman, Rachel Adler wrote a seminal article re-envisioning tumah and taharah, ritual purity and impurity, as a positive experience for women (Adler, Rachel. “Tumah and Taharah: Endings and Beginnings.” The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives. Ed. Elizabeth Koltun. Schocken Books, 1976). Like many modern Jewish women, Adler sought to reclaim Jewish traditions about women by reinterpreting them in a positive way. Adler spoke eloquently of how women, through their menses, embody the cosmic cycle of life, death, and rebirth, of darkness and light. She imagined menstruation as symbolic of loss, and mikveh as an expression of hope and life-giving potential. Adler pointed out that in Temple times purity and impurity applied to everyone, not only to women. She suggested that the forces of life and death, expressed through the ancient dichotomy of tumah and taharah, were both ultimately good, and that both menstrual separation and the return to sexual activity were holy phases of a woman’s life. Many women were convinced by Adler’s ideas, and it is now commonplace for Jewish women who write about mikveh to assert what Adler dared to put forward when it was a radical thought: that “impurity” and “purity” are equal parts of a sacred cycle. Adler created a way of looking at mikveh that allowed many women to feel good about mikveh as a spiritual practice.
Adler herself, over decades, came to believe that she had been wrong in her thinking. The women who met her at conferences and praised her for her ideas saddened and embarrassed her. Finally, twenty-five years later as a Reform theologian, she wrote a second article (“In Your Blood, Live: Re-visions of a Theology of Purity,” in Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life, ed. Debra Orenstein and Jane Rachel Litman, Jewish Lights, 1997) in which she rejected her former philosophy. In this second article, Adler asserted that her first theory of mikveh had been a “slave theology” that purported to sanctify women while enabling their oppression. Adler pointed out that while she claimed that impurity applied to women and men, in actual Jewish life it only applied to women, thus associating women with death. She also re-analyzed biblical texts and indicated that while she imagined niddah (menstrual impurity) as a morally neutral term, the Bible used it as a word for corruption and filth (Lamentations 1:8,17). Adler indicated that her experience of Orthodox practice was that women were labeled as impure and were shut out from reading Torah or even from shaking hands with men because of this designation. She feared that her theology had provided an apologia for misogynistic practices, and wished to replace it with a theology in which purity and bodily reality can co-exist.
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