It is a Torah directive to safeguard ones health. The classic source is Deuteronomy 4:15 “And you shall guard yourselves very well,” of which, Maimonides says in his Mishna Torah, Hilchot Deot 4:1,
A healthy and wholesome body is akin to the ways of G-d, because it is impossible to understand and know (the ways of G-d) when one is ill.
Why then, do we recently – and increasingly – find euphemisms in place body parts when discussing women’s health? Why are health clinics, using vague phrases such as “women’s cancer” or “the cancer found among women”?
Why in the context of health is the word breast not allowed? Why are the words cervix, uterus, ovaries, all parts of our body that enable us to live and to live Jewishly, considered immodest?
Many well-intentioned people believe that using euphemisms instead of names is a way to reach a population for whom these terms are taboo. This may be, and perhaps within the community, where modesty is paramount, schools would do well to use them to begin conversations… but women’s health isn’t even discussed in most schools in these communities. It is not discussed in the media, and often, not even at home.
A haredi friend of mine told me that she had to look up words to teach her daughter about her body. She had simply never been taught the correct terminology. She determined to not say “private parts’ or “the place” when teaching her daughter. She said, “It’s hard for me to use these words, they are foreign to me, but her health is too important for me to be embarrassed.”
The fact is that knowing one’s body is vital to health, especially when changes are the first and most important indicator of illness or disease. Being unable to describe the issue at hand, because of lack of knowledge, or embarrassment, can lead to misdiagnosis, or no diagnosis at all.
Noa Choritz, director of Terem in Jerusalem, tells the story of a woman who came to Terem for intravenous antibiotics. When Choritz asked the patient why she needed antibiotics, the woman said that she had mastitis, an infection usually developed during breastfeeding. Noticing that the woman seemed far beyond her breastfeeding years, Choritz asked why she thought she had mastitis. The woman replied, “I told my doctor that my breast was red and weird, and he told me it was mastitis.” He did not examine her, nor did she ask to be examined. Both the doctor and patient are religious. The patient had been treated four times for mastitis without being examined by a doctor.
Choritz examined the patient and promptly found evidence that was suggestive of breast cancer. The woman’s reluctance to be examined, or inability to properly describe the issue at hand, plus the doctor’s lack of insistence on examining her due to this perceived sensitivity, led to breast cancer not being found.
This is just one of many stories directly connecting hypermodesty with breast cancer not being found. Acquiescing to the idea that body parts are immodest, reinforces fear and a reluctance to discuss them.
Choritz says, “Women are dying from illnesses that could be prevented or treated early simply because we are oversexualizing things that should not be sexualized.”
Concerned with the rapidly increasing notion that women and their bodies are inherently immodest and the resulting implications for women’s health, Chochmat Nashim, an organization that works towards a healthy Jewish society (of which I am a cofounder), approached Rav Asher Weiss, a well respected haredi rabbi. We asked if he would write a psak on the importance of women getting screened for cancer. Immediately, he agreed and stood by the use of accurate names for illness and anatomy.
“…Regarding your request for my opinion on the demands of physicians nowadays to conduct tests for early detection of terrible diseases, which can be cured if detected early—and when, God forbid, the disease is detected at an advanced stage, there is great danger and it is hard to find a cure or remedy—such as colon cancer, breast cancer, and other terrible and cruel diseases: …Through these tests, we can save thousands of people according to the laws of nature; this is certainly included among the efforts (“hishtadlut”) that are correct and proper to make for one’s physical and mental health. This betrays no lack of faith or trust [in God] whatsoever. Rather, it is right and proper, and it is how one must act…”
The psak was also signed by Rav Shimon Ba’adani of the Shas Council of Sages, and Rav David Yosef, son of Rav Ovadia zt’l, also of the Shas Council of Sages.
The threat to women’s health is real. We cannot allow the idea that women’s bodies are shameful, and the discussion of their health taboo, to flourish.
If Rav Asher Weiss, Rav Shimon Ba’adani and Rav David Yosef, great Torah scholars all, can use the word breast when discussing women’s health and insisting on the importance of screening, surely, Maccabi, Meuhedet and all of us can too.