More Thoughts on Niddah

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I’ve been faithfully attending the Yeshivat Hadar sessions about Niddah, taught by Rabbi Ethan Tucker. If you have any interest at all in understanding how the laws of Niddah (menstruation/”family purity”) came to be, and how they’ve evolved over time, I cannot recommend these lectures enough. You can watch them online, download the audio onto your Mp3 player, and download the source sheets, too.

The session on Tuesday dealt primarily with the issue of evidence of menstruation. If we accept the premise that a menstruating woman cannot have sex with her husband (according to the Torah), we have to establish some kind of guideline for what counts as menstruating. If you see a droplet of blood on your underwear, does that mean you’re considered as if you’re menstruating? What if you’re not due to get your period for another week and a half? What if you see a lot of blood, but you think it’s actually blood from your episiotomy stitches, and not your period? Can blood that comes from a woman who is on the Pill really be considered menstrual blood if she hasn’t ovulated?

These are all questions that have been dealt with by various rabbinic experts over time. One of the things we saw was that at some points in history various rabbis have taken it upon themselves to ask the women around them about how those women experience menstruation. What they were trying to find out is, can a woman necessarily feel it when she’s menstruating? Does she definitely know? If we say that a woman knows she’s menstruating because she feels XYZ, what happens when some woman claims she never feels X?

One approach is to say, “Well, all women experience this a little differently.” Another is to say, “She’s actually experiencing X, she’s just not aware that she’s experiencing it.”

On its face, I much prefer the first answer. But on the other hand, I’m not sure how useful it is, when legislating, to say something like, “Everyone experiences this differently.” Of course that’s a true statement, but how relevant is it? How much do we want to go into feelings? Isn’t it easier and more useful to say “Menstruation involves the following factors: XYZ. Not every woman feels any or all of these, but they’re all going on, because we define menstruation as the confluence of these factors.”

As a woman, my instinct is to say, “Hey, my individual experience is important and relevant” but the more I think about it, the less I think that’s true. Maybe it shouldn’t matter if I’m feeling anything at all. Most of the time in Judaism, we care more about the actions than the intent. Why should Niddah be any different?

Thinking about this, I can’t help remembering when I was teaching an undergrad creative writing class at Vanderbilt. All my students handed in short stories, and I graded them based on how good the short stories were. If someone wrote a bad story they got a bad grade, even if I thought they tried hard. My students were outraged, and a lot of my friends thought I was being unnecessarily cruel, too. I got the impression that most people thought I should give the kids who turned in bad stories a good grade if the kids were smart and had worked hard on their stories. The sense was, it wasn’t their fault if they were bad writers. To be honest, I felt awful giving a bad grade to a kid I genuinely liked, but his story was not good. I have a friend who’s a history professor, and he would never give a good grade to a kid who didn’t turn in a good paper, because intent/effort doesn’t really count in a history class. Papers count. Why shouldn’t the same be true in a creative writing class?

I guess I feel this way about Jewish law, too. It’s great if the good intent is there, if there’s some deep feeling behind a ritual or tradition. But if there isn’t, I’m okay with that. If we’re going to have a law about how women deal with their bodies, then maybe it shouldn’t give special consideration to how differently each woman experiences menstruation. At a certain point, that loses its purpose.

(In case you’re wondering about the picture with this post, it’s the third thing that comes up on google images when you type in Niddah. Weird.)

Posted on November 4, 2010

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