Approaching “Niddah” with Radical Openness

I am learning the laws of niddah, laws that relate to menstruation and sexuality, with a group of women. It has been important for me from the beginning that we approach the material with our own lived, embodied experience at the center. As we learn the texts we ask: How does what we read sit in our body? How does it reflect our experience? What does it evoke for us? We are not silent in the face of the text that has authority and may contain opinions that do not reflect the nuance of our experiences, texts that may even contradict the integrity of our lived experience.

It takes more than a minyan of women to grapple creatively with some of the very difficult texts around niddah, menstruation and sexuality. We glean multiple ways of reading and reframing the texts through our experiences and through the incredible combination of our minds. We do not apologize for the text. But rather we try to receive it in our own terms. This is a life-changing process that moves one from being the object of a certain discourse to being the subject of a discourse.

One example of this shift from “object” to “subject” that I personally experienced was when we were discussing Ramban’s commentary on Leviticus where he says that the uterus is destroying and corrupting. I came to that text feeling offended that the rabbis were projecting this destructiveness and fear onto women. But sure enough, other women in the study group offered counter-interpretations to this, interpretations that brought me out of feeling like a victim of the text, and into the realms of being a creative agent unto myself. “It’s like an acknowledgement of our power that we don’t accept everything inside us. That is good.” I suddenly saw it in a different way. Yes, as women, we do hold the power of the liminal spaces of reproduction and creativity and these spaces do involve discernment and death, which are an intrinsic part of the life we cherish and make sacred.

When we are not afraid to confront the darkest elements then we also have attention for the lightest elements. For me this sacred and precious learning adventure is about healing and transformation. We can grow our voices; we can make the secret and somehow shameful something to celebrate and share; we can reframe previous negative experiences; we can heal from the wounds of patriarchy; we can reclaim our tradition; we can have the power that knowledge brings by having firsthand access to the sources; we can have the strength and beauty of a cohort of loving women; there is so much we can have. It has to be possible to cry about the patriarchal valuing of virginity and how the rabbis referred to a woman whose hymen wasn’t intact at marriage. It has to be possible to cry about everything. I can feel the depth of humiliation of what it has meant for women to be held to double standards around sexuality throughout many lifetimes. And because I am allowing everything into my field of awareness and not defending against any interaction or response, I can also open to the beauty of the attention to detail the rabbis pay as an expression of love. When you watch closely, there are at least three shades of black, the rabbis say: the black of an olive, the black of a crow and the black of ink. I see the rabbinic attention to detail in halakhic, legal, discourse as an expression of love, of listening and of attentiveness.

I have been studying the laws of niddah together with a group of women as a project of Yeshivat Kol Isha.  I was sitting with a friend and colleague, someone whose life has been lived in Jewish egalitarian frameworks, and who currently is a prayer leader in such a congregation, and she described to me how she was feeling the lack of women-only space, as well as a lack of the flow and transmission of women’s experiences and voices from generation to generation. From this conversation, Yeshivat Kol Isha was conceived and then shortly after, was born.

Yeshivat Kol Isha is a post-denominational women’s yeshiva (integrating textual learning, spiritual practice and creative expression) that celebrates feminist spirituality and promotes women’s leadership within the context of deeply honoring the earth and all its inhabitants. The aim is for Yeshivat Kol Isha to function as a learning laboratory where women will experiment with their experiences and their voice and then project their thinking and voice into the public sphere, exercising interesting and innovative thought leadership.

Some of my take-aways from Yeshivat Kol Isha, and this particular experience of learning the Laws of Niddah, suggest the importance of blending our individual and coupled practice of the laws of niddah with an active process of learning in the context of a supportive and open group. Taking ownership of our halakhic practice, opening up awareness of our own bodies and cultivating and delighting in our ever-expanding sexuality and capacity for pleasure are paramount. We come to see that the energy flow that our bodies can contain — even as it emerges in a context of our sexuality — is actually our most potent life force and the means through which our very bodies bridge heaven and earth.

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