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My Body For Myself
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JOFA Blog

My Body For Myself

I first read Our Bodies, Our Selves in college, in a Women’s Studies class where the rest of the students were confounded by my insistence on practicing a “sexist religion in which men dictate rules to women.” To be fair, my friends at Hillel were bewildered by my insistence on adding a Women’s Studies certificate to my degree. But neither group fully understood: I could no more give up a halachic life than I could give up being a woman, and I wasn’t willing to compromise on either.

Since then, I’ve gotten married, and I finally begin to see what my Women’s Studies colleagues were talking about, although they didn’t have the background information to know it.

They meant the fact that I’m not trusted to assess the color of stains on my own when in niddah. 

They meant the fact that niddah is not a woman’s mitzvah at all, but rather a way in which my privacy is invaded and my body controlled by others. I don’t admit any person’s right to access knowledge of my physical self for non-medical reasons, or to affect mine and my husband’s relationship. The fact that yoetzot halacha exist has been a blessing again and again throughout my marriage, and yet there are still things too personal for me to ask a stranger.

They meant the fact that my menstrual cycle is short, and that although I was able to conceive physically, I went to the mikveh after ovulating month after month, until finally my doctor put me on hormone pills to extend my cycle. I was not willing to bring bloodstained underwear to another person to receive a ruling, nor was I willing to be lenient and do a hefsek early without certainty. So we continued the nightmare absurdity known as halachic infertility. 

They meant the fact that in the most solemn, radiant, exultant moment of our life together, my husband had to keep his distance from me, placing his hand on our newborn daughter without touching me.

The rabbinic additions to and control over the laws of niddah seem calculated to trap women into hating their bodies, their religion, and their relationships, too. So why does nobody ever talk about niddah?

I’ve broached the subject cautiously with some female friends whom I consider to be on the same religious spectrum as me, and am always surprised by what I find out:

“Oh, we just use the pill to skip periods, so we’re only in niddah like four times a year.”

“We decided harchakot were too much. Basically the only thing off the table during niddah is sex.”

“Yeah… we don’t do that. It just feels weird, and anyhow, it’s not like we grew up doing it, so it would be weird to add it now. We just don’t sleep together then.”

Are my husband and I the only chumps in the Modern Orthodox world to abstain from touching when we are in niddah, and to actually enter into niddah regularly? To deal with the emotionally unhealthy fall-out of a constantly shifting ability to express our love in consistent ways? How do other couples handle it? We just don’t know. 

It’s simply not healthy to view my husband as an obstacle in the room around which I must navigate, and to stupidly resent him for navigating around me.

Contrary to the enthusiastic teachings of kallah teachers worldwide, not touching while in niddah is rather like, two weeks out of every month, trying to communicate entirely without the letter “o.” We can do it, and perhaps it challenges our relationship in creative ways to do so, but it doesn’t provide any benefits to the relationship itself. We learn to say, “I live you” instead of the alternative, and then “Me t—”, “I mean, me als—”, “I mean, me as well,” but such carefully curated expressions of affection lose the spontaneity of the casual touch that says, “I’m glad you’re in this room with me, and I’m just reaching out as I pass by to say so wordlessly.” It’s simply not healthy to view my husband as an obstacle in the room around which I must navigate, and to stupidly resent him for navigating around me. In addition, for days after I’ve been to the mikveh, we’re still careful around each other. One of us pulls back quickly from the other’s hand, or tentatively pats a shoulder, as we forget that we can touch again and have to feel our way towards physical intimacy once more. 

In addition to this, for most of our marriage, we have been in niddah much longer than we needed to. I am paralyzed at the thought of asking niddah questions. While I call the Nishmat hotline when I need to, I do so with blazing resentment at sharing intimate information with strangers. I’ve never brought a cloth to anyone to check, though I have cried for hours as I tried to quash my own need for physical privacy in order to do so. 

The thing is, that even once I call, I find that I can’t own my religious practice. Many times, I’ve asked a halachic question and the rabbi has explained the principle and shown me the source, empowering me to halachic practice. But with niddah, I can’t just learn it on my own—yoetzot halachah were adamant that I show them my underwear or bedikah cloths for accuracy.

“Don’t you have some kind of a color chart that women can use?” I asked. No, apparently it takes years of training—and apparently women cannot be trusted to evaluate their own period color. I would hang up with a catch in my throat, promising that I would absolutely drop off the stained material at a local yoetzet, and then agonize about whether to do so. Something in me refuses to show my underwear to another person as part of my religious practice. I would dither about it, knowing that if I waited long enough, the problem would resolve myself and that a three-week-long niddah would eventually be so clearly over that I could go to the mikveh without any doubts or invasion of privacy.

At the start of my marriage, I would walk to the mikveh in tears, humiliated by the thought that I was about to subject myself to inspection by a human whom I had not chosen. I choose my doctor. This was simply another way for Judaism to control women’s bodies, and worse, to have women control other women’s bodies. 

At the start of my marriage, I would walk to the mikveh in tears, humiliated by the thought that I was about to subject myself to inspection by a human whom I had not chosen.

As I became more comfortable with the mitzvah of mikveh, and as I realized that the old balanit was somewhat senile and could no more remember me from time to time than she could see the fine print in her tehillim book, it no longer felt excruciating. In fact, knowing that the balanit was the same old comfortable lady without judgment or memory, I began to look forward to dipping.

The problem was, I would look forward to dipping for a long time. I’d start my period and then we would wait and wait, trapped in the unhealthy limbo that niddah creates as we carefully maneuvered around the house. When in niddah, I start to feel angry with my husband. Why doesn’t he remind me every time he passes me that he loves me, the way he does when we are allowed to touch and he can simply put a hand on my shoulder to tell me without interruption, without words, of his love? Why doesn’t he announce to the world as we walk that we are together, the way he does when he seeks out my hand and holds it on a stroll? 

And I tell him this ruefully and he makes me laugh through my tears and we brainstorm ways to express our love for each other that will make up for this absence and still, we miss the ease of touch. Marriage isn’t a golf tournament; there’s no reason to add in handicaps. 

When we decided to have a child, I looked back at the menstrual tracking I’ve done since we married, and started to worry. Something more than my emotional health and the health of our marriage was at stake; our ability to procreate. We went through several months in which I walked to the mikveh in tears again, knowing I’d already ovulated. Did you know that in a 2012 study of Orthodox women, 21% were halachically infertile? Of those, 64% consulted rabbis, and 68% sought medical treatment. In a problem created by religion, more women are willing to seek medical treatment than religious treatment.

Something more than my emotional health and the health of our marriage was at stake; our ability to procreate.

I began doing research. I found an app called “Tahor,” created for women who live in remote areas and can’t get their cloths to an expert for evaluation. I live in a city with many rabbinic options, but the idea of a completely anonymous digital system felt doable to me in a way that physically showing my stained cloths to another human didn’t. I carefully placed a coin beside the cloth, paid the small fee, and awaited an answer. It came back quickly:

“Do you have anybody you can show this to physically?”

Tearing up, I typed back quickly: “I am unwilling to do so. We are trying to get pregnant and I have a long period, and so we want to know if it’s okay.”

The answer came back, after a long wait: “It’s okay. Go ahead with the 7 clean days.”

I looked at that answer for a while. The rabbi on the other end… had he just said that because I told him we were trying to conceive? Probably. Or maybe not. If I didn’t sink into humiliated tears at the thought of showing my blood to another human being, we could probably clear this up easily. But I’m not willing to have this personal thing exposed to someone not my doctor, not my husband… in short, to allow this degree of control and exposure. 

I waited to go to the mikveh that month until I had a completely white cloth for my hefsek. 

Eventually, I had a routine check-up with my gynecologist. I told her we were trying to get pregnant, but I was ovulating too early in my cycle. She put me on hormones that extended my cycle, and a few months later, we were pregnant. I was beyond grateful for the solution, but at the same time I resented needing a medical intervention to clear up what was a purely halachic obstruction.

I was beyond grateful for the solution, but at the same time I resented needing a medical intervention to clear up what was a purely halachic obstruction.

Pregnancy was bliss. We could touch, hold hands, cuddle, and suddenly our relationship, which I had always assumed went up and down due to my hormones, was consistent. I still had massive hormonal shifts because of pregnancy—but our relationship kept getting better and better. It had nothing to do with sex. That gets harder with pregnancy. It was about touch. And not having any guilt over waiting to go to the mikveh, and not having any fear of rabbinic intervention into our marriage. I understood, for the first time, just how detrimental the harchakot against touching are to our relationship.

I understood, for the first time, just how detrimental the harchakot against touching are to our relationship.

A few months ago I gave birth to a beautiful daughter. The moment she appeared, we were back in niddah, and suddenly, at the apex of our life together, everything felt off again, and I plunged into loneliness, and fierce, rueful, humorous anger at my husband for following the halachic framework we’d agreed upon. I don’t know where we’ll end up as we navigate this, but I do know this: it needs to be talked about. Surely other couples struggle, tremendously, with the emotional deprivation caused by niddah. Surely other women fight the feeling of control over their bodies that rabbinic authorities claim through not giving women the tools to determine their status. Surely others’ relationships are affected by it. And yet, it is a taboo subject. So, I’m talking about it, in the hope of reclaiming my body for myself.

 

Hannah Wenger Tam is the IB Diploma Program Coordinator at the Eastern Mediterranean International School near Tel Aviv. She is passionate about using education to mediate conflict, Yemenite-Ashkenazi fusion cuisine, and melding her Jewish and feminist identities.

 

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