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.”