17 April 2008

Explaining My Disgust with the term "Family Purity"

Okay, so I had previously called נידה (niddah) "menstrual impurity", claiming that
I refuse to call it טהרת המשפחה, as per ITLOTW (who says there, "I refuse to call it taharat hamishpacha...you are being purified to a limited extent, not your family, they are not dipping in any mikvahs or counting any days.")
In the comments thread, Rabbi Rivkin responded that
The phrase Hilchot Niddah does not convey the spiritual importance of these laws, or the positive effect that they have on Jewish marriage.
Somehow, talking about the laws of the dripping women (Niddah from the verb Davah) or the laws of the banished women (niddah from the term Nidui) doesn't sound so uplifting as talking about the laws that sanctify sexual relations between husband and wife.
Okay, so the comments thread is still there and the reader may be referred there for more discussion. However, one interesting thing is that I wrote that before having studied those laws in depth last year. In any event, this past shabbas, with the Torah reading including Leviticus 15, I couildn't but think about this topic.
Okay, in truth, the other week, at the gym, whilst on the elliptical machine (a great place to read articles, dissertations, etc.), I read Aviad Stollman's review article and the first footnote caught my eye:
It seems that the title “Jewish Family Life” was coined by the author as an attempt to render a more politically correct term than the now conventional euphemism tahorat ha-mishpahah. According to Evyatar Marienberg, the term, ‘tahorat ha-mishpahah,’ itself is of German-Jewish origin, late in the nineteenth century, probably a translation of the expression “Reinheit des Familienslebens.” The original expression was most likely coined as an attempt to suppress the obvious halakhic fact that a woman who menstruates is impure. Instead of discussing the impurity of the niddah, one is encouraged to think of the purity of the family. It is also probable that the term came into use to emphasize the talmudic notion that not keeping the laws of niddah can have consequences on the purity of the offspring.
I realized a less intellectual and more visceral problem for me with the term of family purity - it conjures up the term of "limpieza de sangre". Anyways, I don't like it.

Rabbi Stollman continues, in the same footnote as mentioned above, and suggests further reading:
See: Evyatar Marienberg, Niddah: Lorsque les juifs conceptualisent la menstruation (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2003), pp. 40–41; Haviva Ner-David, “Niddah: A Case in Point of Feminist Reinterpretation,” in To Be a Jewish Woman, Part B: Proceedings of the Second International Conference: Women and Her Judaism, ed. Margalit Shilo, (Jerusalem and New York: Kolech―Religious Women's Forum and Urim Publications, 2003), pp. 110–111; Tirzah Meacham, “An Abbreviated History of the Development of the Jewish Menstrual Laws,” in Rahel R. Wasserfall, ed., Women and Water― Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law (Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 1999), pp. 32–33; Jonah Steinberg, “From a ‘Pot of Filth’ to a ‘Hedge of Roses’ (and Back): Changing Theorizations of Menstruation in Judaism,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 13:2 (1997), pp. 5–26.
Over the weekend, I read this last article. A really nice excerpt is the following:
The production of a contrary new truth, at least in literature, is an amazing feat, considering that Orthodox Judaism abhors the attribution of fallacy or fallibility to the sages of its past. The feat is even more astonishing when we turn from what 'family purity' isn't to what it is in modern Orthodox apology. (17)
However, I must, point out something that I found to be erroneous in his article:
One passage from the Talmud, however, figures prominently in all of the new literature. This is the statement, from the talmudic tractate Niddah: "Because a man may become overly familiar with his wife and thus be repelled by her, the Torah said that she should be a niddah for seven clean days (after her flow) so that she will be pleasing to her husband as on the day of her marriage" (b. Niddah 31b). This quotation speaks plainly of male sexual desire ("pleasing" here means also "sexually pleasing"); but the mythology of "family purity" converts this dictum into the promise of an eternal and mutual honeymoon. (18-19)
The statement Steinberg references is
Rabbi Meir used to say, "Why did the Torah say niddah is seven days? Because if he was accustomed to her, she would be disgusting in his eyes. The Torah said niddah is seven days in order so that she should be beloved upon her husband on the day of her purification (some MSS have "her immersion") like the day of her entrance to the huppah."
The thing that immediately jumps out to the reader is the androcentricity of the statement and of the affection. However, the erroneous statement of Steinberg's is that "
she should be a niddah for seven clean days (after her flow)", as Rabbi Meir was a tanna (and the stringency to go beyond that didn't arise until at least a century after Rabbi Meir died) and he was speaking about what the Torah (in Lev. 15) said to do for niddah. I suppose Steinberg was speaking about the contemporary handbooks?
Those are my niddah thoughts for now....

1 comment:

Nem said...

Something that we have discussed in our Hilchot Niddah class is the danger of emphasizing the "perpetual honeymoon" idea as *the reason* for these laws. While it may be true for some people that they feel renewed desire or belovedness through mikva use, it is not true for everyone. Those people who find this not to be the case shouldn't be made to feel that there is something wrong with them or that there is no reason for them to keep the laws. Similarly, some women wonder if there would be something lacking in their marriage if they use certain types of birth control that prevent menstruation. Of course, this is not the case. Marriages can get through pregnancy and menopause just fine without monthly mikva use.