Reappropriating the Taboo

Bringing new meaning to the status of a menstruating woman.

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So too with menstrual blood. We who are often uninspired and unaffected by our bodies should reject the negative connotation of taboo--and explore, instead, the positive and sacred aspect. Surely a religion that has a blessing for an activity as mundane as going to the bathroom should have a blessing for the coming and going of menstruation. Since the male composers of the liturgy, living in a world where modesty was central and women's bodies were a mystery at best, were not able--or more likely, not willing--to imagine such a blessing, we must be the first generation to do so.

More than thirty years ago, I did just this: I wrote a blessing for menstruation and have been writing about it and teaching it ever since. When I crafted my b'rachah, I reappropriated the difficult and offensive morning blessing in the traditional prayer book, which reads: "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has not made me a woman." (Traditionally, women say instead, "who has made me according to Your will.") Each month, when I get my period, I say: "Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, she'asani ishah: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has made me a woman." Saying the blessing becomes a revolutionary moment, for this slight change in wording--changing the negative "who has not made me a woman" into the positive "who has made me a woman"--affirms my holiness and sanctity within the context of menstruation, not despite it.

I believe it is possible to rescue the aspects of mystery inherent in menstruation. While we reject menstrual huts, a separation from the sancta, and antiquated notions of cleanliness, we can still emerge with a sense of the overwhelming mystery of life and death that is embodied in our corporeal female selves. While many women associate menstruation with physical pain and discomfort, the experience nonetheless involves a degree of power. We should reject the notion that menstruation makes a woman "unclean" and instead think of this time as a period of intense electrical charges-the charge of life and death-pulsing through our bodies. Blu Greenberg urges us to focus more on the positive, "to restore that element of holiness to our bodies, our selves" (On Women and Judaism, 1981, pp. 118-120).

Menstruation and Covenant

We can also consider a connection between menstruation and covenant. The prophet Zechariah speaks to "daughter Jerusalem" and "daughter Zion" about "your covenant of blood" as that which releases prisoners from the dry pit (9:9-11). It does not say "the covenant of blood," as most translations render it, but rather emphasizes that blood is the focus of the covenant. The address to the feminine persona suggests that all "daughters of Zion" have that covenant of blood. It is through menstruation--from puberty when we accept our responsibilities as Jews, through the elder years when bleeding stops and deep wisdom starts--that the entire world is saved from the dry pit of death, in which there is no water, no womb, no regeneration, no rebirth.

See menstrual blood, then, as women's covenantal blood--just as the blood of b'rit milah (ritual circumcision) is men's. The possibilities for rituals around this abound. For women too have a b'rit (covenant) inscribed in our flesh as an "everlasting covenant" (Genesis 17:19): not just once, at eight days old, but every single month. And M'tzora, in its ancient and perhaps awkward way, attempts to remind us.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis--all of them women--The Torah: A Women's Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.

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Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

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