We talk about niddah. But are we talking about it in all the ways that our community needs?
In a recent Lehrhaus article regarding what our community might learn from the pandemic about mikveh governance and niddah education, Mijal Bitton and Elana Stein Hain write: “…as mikveh relates to matters that are deeply private – a woman’s menstrual cycle and a couple’s sexual life – its personal dimension were not typically the subject of public discussion. Even in communities where pandemic challenges around mikveh were discussed openly, women and men often kept their pain and anxiety concealed due to the private nature of this mitzvah.”
The pandemic has brought the need to provide spaces for women (and couples) to discuss their emotions surrounding the lived experience of niddah into sharper focus. In the past 12 months, more women have shared with me intimate details about their relationships with their bodies, with their spouses, and with Halacha than ever before. Many have also mentioned reading Hannah Wenger Tam’s “For My Body, For Myself” in the New York Jewish Week, and via The Times of Israel, with interest and a sense of validation. Even pre-Covid, in my capacity as a yoetzet halacha and kallah teacher, I have encountered thoughts and feelings like those that Ms. Wenger Tam expresses, explicitly and implicitly, in questions and in conversation.
COVID-19 reinforced to me the importance of listening, recognizing a woman’s experience, and letting her know that she is not alone. In that spirit, I offer here an overdue response to Ms. Wenger Tam. Rather than seeking to challenge or correct specific thoughts that she presents, I write to provide insight into the emotional landscape they represent, and to suggest ways to create a supportive community around the lived experience of Taharat Hamishpacha. To that end, I’ll reflect on key points from the piece and offer concrete bullet-point suggestions to those who provide halachic guidance, in order to enhance the support for women and couples.
You wonder why “nobody ever” talks about niddah.
This is an important question about the unspoken understanding that one should keep the experience of niddah private. Increasingly, educators and yoatzot halacha offer programming on niddah and women’s health-related topics, providing public spaces for raising more personal concerns (in addition to offering one-on-one consultations). But many of the emotional aspects of living niddah are still raised only hesitantly in these contexts, if at all.
The sisterhood of women is more comfortable talking about aspects of observance that are relatively external, such as mikveh preparation, gel manicures, and the impact of hormonal contraceptives on niddah status. (The exception might be semi-public Facebook groups, where it sometimes seems like there is nothing that is not discussed).
Part of the reluctance to share the emotional experience of niddah is a function of valuing tzeniut, modesty, the religious principle that some matters should be private. Hesitation to reveal feelings on niddah may also relate to the fact that the experience of niddah involves husbands and not just wives. But, the cost of abiding by the unspoken rule that “we don’t discuss these things” can be high.
Even as niddah education improves, women do not process their niddah experience with other women. Their more personal and emotional concerns about the entirety of the experience can affect a halachic ruling. When these feelings don’t surface in conversation, especially with halachic figures, some women may come to observe Taharat Hamishpacha in a way that is more stringent (or sometimes more lenient) than what is required. Additionally, silence and resulting stringency can lead some women to believe that halachic authorities are complicit in making women feel negatively about, “their bodies, their religion, and their relationships, too.”
- It is critical for those providing halachic guidance to help women find opportunities to articulate their experiences and receive the support that they need.
You feel that your privacy has been invaded and your body taken out of your control.
Taharat Hamishpacha is an emotionally charged topic because it lies at the nexus of the most intimate arenas of a woman’s life: her body, sexuality, marriage, and family. As such, it is crucial that conversations about these topics be conducted with utmost sensitivity. Therefore:
- Women should receive reassurance that observing niddah is emotionally charged.
- They should be reassured from the outset that they can share their feelings about it without being judged.
Halachic practice often involves small details, and answers to questions often depend on specific details of a given circumstance. Hilchot niddah intersects with physical health, mental health, and the relationship between spouses. Thus, when a question arises, it may be necessary for a woman to provide highly detailed personal information in order to receive a response — especially when there is a question of whether the situation at hand meets the halachic definition of a pressing situation. A woman may naturally find it difficult to share these intimate details, and as a result conceptualize her observance as “controlled by others.” With these considerations in mind, there are a number of practical ways that halachic guides can answer questions while maximally protecting a woman’s privacy:
- We should explain from the outset that niddah observance relies on the information provided by the woman to determine her status, and that questions are asked to clarify what she has experienced, not to question her experience.
- We should both keep in mind, and remind women that the halachic system trusts and empowers a woman to make judgements regarding her status. As in other areas of halacha, it is only when she is unsure as to how to proceed that she needs to ask a question.
- When asking more intimate questions is warranted, we should ask permission to do so, verbally acknowledging the potential discomfort.
- We should invite a woman to speak at her own pace, or to try writing, texting, or voice-messaging instead of speaking directly, based on whatever is most comfortable for her.
- When possible, we should seek out methods of answering a question in ways that do not require the woman to share intimate details. For example, if there is a specific point on which the halacha depends, a response can lay out what the answer would be for each possibility, adding, “You don’t have to tell me if you prefer not to. Use what I said as a guide to answer the question.”
- Even when questions are handled with great sensitivity, a woman may still understandably feel that she is relinquishing control over her body. We should seek out ways to empower her within the inherently disempowering position of being the “asker.”
- Sometimes, welcoming a direct and respectful conversation about a woman’s feelings about niddah can be fruitful, albeit not always in the moment of her questions and struggles. Halacha often requires surrendering control (in more areas of life than marriage). Fostering a sense of connection and ownership and surrender are not mutually exclusive.
You feel that you are not trusted to take ownership of your own religious practice.
For some women, the very need to ask questions about these topics reinforces a sentiment that they are not trusted. To contribute to women’s sense of ownership and agency:
- We should offer to share the reasoning behind answers. This is educational and empowering, and conveys respect.
- We should clarify which aspects of an answer may be relevant for future practice. Practically, this can help a woman navigate her halachic observance. Emotionally, it reinforces that asking questions is beneficial to the women in the long term.
- Many women appreciate hearing what they do not need to ask about, reducing the amount of potentially uncomfortable future encounters and sending the message that they are trusted to apply their knowledge.
You wish you could know more about other couples’ struggles with the emotional consequences of niddah.
Struggle often loves company. However, if those in struggle cannot seek that company on their own, those who occupy an intermediate space between the individual and others can play a pivotal and critical role. When halachic guides normalize a couple’s experience, this helps to mitigate the deep loneliness that they feel.
- Given that openly sharing feelings about niddah is typically stigmatized, conveying to women that there are others who feel similarly can be both validating and comforting.
Women often feel extremely lonely in their niddah observance, in particular regarding how the lack of physical contact in niddah impacts a woman’s relationship with her spouse, her body, and her emotional life.
- Sometimes, asking, “How is this impacting your relationship?” can ameliorate loneliness and provide an opening for women to speak and be heard. Beyond the emotional support that asking this question provides, the information that she shares may also have halachic significance.
You wonder if the rulings that you receive are really acceptable to follow.
Women may be hesitant to follow halachic leniency for two main reasons. One, there is often a lot of fear and guilt associated with niddah observance, especially because violations of niddah are punishable by karet. Two, most couples have not studied the laws of niddah and the intricacies of p’sak in depth. A more basic understanding of the halacha, coupled with the fear of violating it, can lead a couple to question the answer to a question even after it has been answered.
Halachic professionals can build couples’ confidence in lenient rulings in a few ways:
- We should convey a lenient answer in a way that clarifies that it is what should be done in the presenting situation, rather than a compromised level of observance.
- We should offer to explain how an answer was arrived at.
- We should point out that halacha is a system of balances, so that adopting a leniency regarding niddah may sometimes promote observance of other important mitzvot, such as shalom bayit, the ability to bear children, and preserving mental health.
You don’t see any benefit of niddah to your marital relationship and can’t reconcile your experience with “enthusiastic teachings” that you heard prior to marriage.
Some have been educated only about the beauty and benefits that can emerge from observing Taharat Hamishpacha, and not about the potential challenges. Rabbi Meir’s explanation in Niddah 31b, to the effect of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” resonates for some couples, but not for others. The gap between expectation and reality for some can make for a rude awakening. Additionally, it can cause them to feel that they struggle alone, or even to harbor feelings of resentment towards their educators and halacha.
- To account for these gaps in education and this varied experience of niddah-observant couples, we should acknowledge that observing niddah can be challenging.
- We should also acknowledge feelings of anger about being unprepared or misguided. Feelings are not facts; validating a feeling does not compromise our halachic integrity.
- We should state that halachic observance is significant, even when we have negative feelings about it.
- Warm, respectful encouragement never hurts.
Guiding others in their halachic observance is a responsibility and a privilege: to help shape observance, and to meet and support people where they are. Over time, the work of yoatzot halacha and many others in the field has expanded from sharing halachic information to providing educational opportunities about the intersecting areas of women’s physical wellbeing, mental health, and relationships. These forums have slowly begun to organically foster sisterhoods of women who have benefited from starting to broaden the conversation to include the lived experience of Taharat Hamishpacha. More women are observing niddah; more women are being educated; more women are feeling supported and heard.
However, our work is not complete. We cannot merely talk and educate about laws and facts; it is imperative that we focus our energies on how best to acknowledge the emotional complexities of niddah observance, and provide more robust spiritual and emotional support. It is my hope that we can move from asking “why does nobody talk about niddah,” to addressing “how best can we talk about niddah” in this post-pandemic moment of introspection and beyond.