Why are we commanded to observe niddah?
It is this question that makes niddah so difficult for the modern woman – because even though we are willing to accommodate Western society’s patriarchal menstrual taboos that have resulted in a multi-million dollar industry whose entire premise is that women must hide the fact that they menstruate, we demand more of our religion. After all, isn’t it God who gave us periods in the first place?
Most of the answers I heard growing up Modern Orthodox were apologetics: It’s supposed to make your marriage better by building in no-sex time that keeps things fresh in the bedroom and forces you to work on the spiritual aspect of your relationship, it’s about loss of potential life force, because women are holy, or it’s a purely ritual enactment, that says nothing about who you are – because I guess categories like pure/impure are meaningless and arbitrary?
But none of these answers are completely satisfying, especially in an era where having a healthy marriage while keeping niddah is acknowledged as a major challenge, and when we don’t ask men to go to mikvah when they release sperm, even though the Torah records that as impure as well, possibly because, like menstruation, it represents a loss of potential life force.
I would like to posit that, if we accept Maimonidean approach that the Temple service was commanded to the Jewish people as an accommodation to a historical era in which people felt a need for physical rituals of religious worship, but that this does not make the Torah any less the word of God or any less binding, we can also accept that other Torah commandments were given as an accommodation to the Ancient Near Eastern mindset.
In this spirit, I’d like to offer two possible reasons for niddah:
- In a society in which men might have been inconsiderate of a woman’s right to say “No”, enshrining that right in law during the time of month she was likely to be feeling unwell was a way of protecting women. In addition to preventing them being forced into sex during this time, it also trained men to get into the mindset that sex from their wives was not something constantly on offer, to be taken whenever they felt like it, which would hopefully have an impact even on days when a woman wasn’t menstruating.
- The sexual prohibition on sleeping with a woman in nidah are part of the larger purity/impurity laws enumerated in Vayikra. Jacob Millgrom* has a theory that the nidah prohibition developed in response to the common ancient near eastern belief that period blood was defiling and necessitated a woman’s being cast out of the home and the community, with anything that touched any part of her body becoming contaminated. By limiting menstrual impurity to Temple rituals, and to objects that touched the lower part of the menstruant’s body, which might get bloody, and enumerating the laws in such a way that made it clear that the Torah assumed that the woman was living at home while menstruating, the Torah was striving to fight against menstrual taboos. The goal was to show that menstruation was normal, and not a result of demonic forces, which was a common belief. Then why have nidah laws at all? For the same reason the Torah has laws concerning a man who releases semen: Holiness is life. God is life. So death and loss of potential life render one impure and unable to enter the Temple, the physical symbol of God’s holiness here on earth. This is the same reason one may not enter the Temple after touching a corpse. Seen in this light, the prohibition on sex with a menstruant makes sense: You might get some of her blood on you, which would render you impure.
Of course, the niddah mandated in the Torah is different than the niddah of today, both because of the rabbinic laws that have sprung up around it, and because of the famous stringency of Rabbi Zera, in which the women of Israel chose to treat all blood greater than the size of a mustard-seed as nidah blood.**
First of all, how much do we trust Rabbi Zeira to accurately report what the women decided? I guess, if he reported it to a Beit Midrash full of men, they would have known what their own wives did, and therefore, been able to call him out on it if what he were saying were not common practice. But even if he was right, in a patriarchal society in which religion is power (i.e. all pre-modern societies), the way that women have to take power is by out-religioning the men – by taking on stringencies. In that sense, the stringency of Rabbi Zeira might seem as a hopelessly anachronistic act of women’s empowerment – but is that enough to make it meaningful to the modern woman today?
As for the rabbinic laws that cropped up around nidah, if we believe that the rabbis are human beings and men, it is almost impossible that they would not be influenced by the society and time period in which they lived, including the sexism and menstrual taboos.
This raises the thorny theological question: Can halakha develop contrary to God’s will?
The answer might be yes, but it doesn’t matter. God invested the rabbis with the authority to make halakha. The minute authority is invested in human beings, who are imperfect, it follows that the laws they create will be imperfect as well. But because God knew that when He gave halacha-making power to humanity, those imperfections can be seen as part of God’s plan for halacha, and thus, part of His will.
Think of a teacher, faced with the choice of making all the rules for their fifth grade class, or giving the class certain principles or hard-set rules, and allow the class to, as a community, decide on how to translate those into the nitty-gritty rules of daily life in school. Clearly, the teacher’s rules are more likely to be “right” and effective. However, if the teacher wants their children to develop as human beings and as a community, giving them the power to make rules -including the power to make mistakes and silly rules – is probably the way to go. Assuming God is our teacher (among other roles) and wants us, as humanity and as a Jewish community, to develop over the centuries, it makes sense that He***** gave us the power to make our own rules, as long as we followed certain guidelines – including the power to make mistakes.
This does not make halakha any less binding. The commandment “Do not stray from their teachings” invests the rabbis with binding authority, which holds even when they make mistakes.******
This can be seen from the Talmudic story of Akhnai’s oven******: A voice from heaven comes down and tells the rabbis that they have ruled incorrectly. The rabbis retort that the authority to make Jewish law is not in heaven – it has been invested by the rabbis. God admits that “My children have won”, and the “wrong” rule of the rabbis is in fact the legally binding one. This is similar to the US Constitution: Congress might pass laws I disagree with, but if I wish to be a law-abiding citizen, I must obey those laws, even as I take the government to court and hope the rule will be overturned by the Supreme Court. As a matter of fact, I would argue the flaw of modern Orthodox Judaism is that it has lost its “Supreme Court” mechanism, but that is beyond the scope of this piece.
It’s hard to give this logic as the reason behind nidah, because ‘The rabbis were wrong and the rules are anachronistic, but they’re still binding” is not a very meaningful way to live one’s life. This goes back to Tamar Ross’s claim, that the reason feminism is such a threat to traditional rabbinic Judaism is that it is a stand-in for the theological challenge to Judaism posed by modernity. At the same time, claiming that nidah was meant to improve marriage***, when many couples feel it makes marriage harder, either makes the rabbis look wrong, or makes couples feel inadequate and guilty for struggling with nidah to begin with.
My response to this conundrum is simple: “Torat Hashem temimah, meshivat nafesh”.***** The Torah of God is pure, returning one’s soul to oneself, opening the doors to the image of God that lies within us. This means that::
- It’s up to the rabbis to adjudicate Torah i.e. halakha, in a way that is pure and refreshing and meaningful. This does not mean going beyond halakha. It means finding a way within halakha to do so – which we know is possible, because it says so in the text! If the rabbis can’t find that path, they’re doing something wrong.
- It’s up to us, the people, to look into the Torah, even to verses or laws we find difficult, in order to see how they might be pure, how they might helps us in our spiritual growth, how they might be tools in helping us to become who we wish to be in our brief sojourns on this earth.
May we all merit to find meaning in God’s words, and pleasure in observance of the living waters of Torah.
*See his commentary on Leviticus. Of course, since he wrote a book and I’m writing a short blog post, I am simplifying.
** Then, it was decided to treat all nidah blood, which renders one impure/celibate for 7 days from the beginning of one’s period, as zavah blood, which necessitates 7 blood-free days after the end of the bleeding before one can become pure – because we lost the tradition of distinguishing between different types of blood.
*** The traditional rabbinic response.
**** תהילים יט:ח
***** I use “He” because English lacks gender neutral pronouns and I don’t want to make Divine pronouns the focus of this post.
******לא תסור מן הדבר אשר יגידו לך – דברים יז יא תנור של אכנאי – בבא מציאע נט: