Confronting the Awkwardness of Separating During Niddah

The most recent episode of “The Joy of Text” podcast featured a discussion on the time period when couples are not supposed to touch. This time period, called niddah, is frequently described as menstrual impurity, family purity (although not unproblematically), or simply left undescribed or untranslated. Thus, the title for this month’s episode is “Navigating Niddah,” in which the co-hosts, Rabbi Dov Linzer and Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, discuss how people deal with this time period.

During this time period, there are various activities which are avoided, due to the potential for a couple to come physically closer, which are called “distancings” (harhakot). “The harhakot are a whole collection of types of behaviors that the rabbis said that should not be occurring between husband and wife for one of two reasons: either because of a concern that it might lead to them having sex or because of a concern that, if sex was forbidden, then certain acts of physical intimacy would be…at the edges of that category of sex,” said Rabbi Linzer, “and, therefore, also something that should not be done during this time.”

As opposed to other episodes of the “Joy of Text” podcast in which either Dr. Marcus takes more of a leading role or where either of the co-hosts have a balanced amount of speaking, the main segment featured Rabbi Linzer as he took more of a sage on the stage role, with Dr. Marcus offering some reflections. The harhakot, said Rabbi Linzer, “are a whole different range of practices, some are based on the Talmud, some developed after the Talmud, some are minhag (customs), and some are more strict halakha (Jewish law)- it’s a wide range of practices.” There are, of course, some challenges for relationships that arise out of these practices, which the hosts advised negotiating together, and perhaps with the guidance of a rabbi.

The featured guest on the episode is Dr. Deborah Raice Fox, who, in addition to her vocation as an endocrinologist, teaches engaged couples about sex, niddah, and more. Dr. Raice Fox has served as a teacher of engaged couples (known in Hebrew as chatan [groom]and kallah [bride]) for 18 years. While on the show, Dr. Raice Fox spoke broadly about her couples teaching, including how she got into teaching both members of the couple. “At the beginning, I thought that the sexuality part would be only with the women, and, actually, after some of the couples said, ‘Why should we separate for that? We both want to be here together,'” she then began to include the groom in the discussions. In addition to speaking about niddah, Dr. Raice Fox also teaches about sex beyond simply the wedding night: “I think framing it much more in terms of not just wedding night sex,” is important, she said, which is common, “but rather how to have a sexual life together.”

As has been typical of late for The Joy of Text episodes, the hosts entertained one question (earlier on in the run of the show, they would take two questions): “I was told when I got married, 10 years ago, that a woman can’t directly ask for sex. The reason I was given is that sex is a mitzvah (commandment), and it’s not fair to put a man in the position to be able to fulfill or perform a mitzvah – is this true?” After Rabbi Linzer debunked that errant line of reasoning, he shared what the Talmud says about the matter, which is quite different. Nevertheless, Rabbi Linzer did say it is important for women to be able to share their interest with their husbands, especially since a husband needs to be responsive to the needs of his wife. “I think, in married life, you work to accommodate your partner’s needs to the degree that it’s feasible,” said Rabbi Linzer, “and whether that means a particular thing that one person wants to be doing in the bedroom and the other person is maybe not so thrilled with or whether that means ‘Do you want to have sex tonight?’, so that’s true both in terms of the relationship — you know: sometimes you’re not 100% raring to go, but you try to be responsive to your partner.”

For more on this episode, see here.

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