Every hotel that we stayed at had two single beds, sometimes they would be pushed together to make one double bed and sometimes they were already apart when we entered the room. This was very convenient for us, as our roommates were not necessarily our bed mates. This is a very interesting cultural practice though, and it is informed by the laws of niddah. The laws of niddah are very interesting and Hartman and Marmon do a very interesting study by speaking with orthodox women about the complexities of the issue.

Niddah is a ritual around a married woman’s menstrual cycle. While a married woman is menstruating she many not touch her husband, her husband may not touch her until the period is over and after seven “white days,” days that she does not spot. Once that time is over the woman must visit a mikveh before she is able to make any physical contact with her husband. The ritual is controversial and has been characterized as oppressive and humiliating, while also been called (mostly by Orthodox Jewish people) beautiful and empowering. Hartman and Marmon speak to Orthodox women about their own experiences and if they believe that it is an oppressive practice or not.

It is a complicated ritual and really shapes the gender dynamics within a marriage and the decision of whether it is oppressive or not really comes down on the individual. Many women found it an inconvenience. One of the most interesting responses to the question of the law was a woman named Yosefa that was quoted as saying: “My problem is not just how hard it is to do the checks twice a day– not just that I can’t have intercourse– it’s that I can’t be touched. My needs for being touched are not just sexual; they’re human” (395). Yosefa revealed that “[a]fter giving birth, she “stained” continuously for three and a half months, which, according to halakha, assigned her the status of niddah for that entire period” (395). A woman named Shifra agreed with Yosefa, Shifra is quoted as saying “Not being able to touch each other is torture” with an “increasingly lived tone” (395). While I really sympathize with their experiences– their husband would be suffering the same distance from his wife, and while the issue is that the female body is “polluting” while she is niddah, that understanding seems to have been reinterpreted. While the woman may feel more isolated than the man in the marriage, the man is still isolated from contact with his wife.

Speaking of male impurity then, a woman interviewed named Tina makes the point that: “during the course of history, male impurity faded as a practical halakhic category, and men’s mikveh immersion was deemed obsolete” (397). This is a very interesting point. Adler touches on the concept of the male body and male fluids, a layer of complication on the Jewish concept of gender. She explains: “[s]emen has always symbolized man’s vital force. That is why in so many cultures the idea existed (and still exists) that a man’s semen supply is limited, and when it is depleted he will die” (66). In contrast she explains that “[t]he menstrual blood, which inside the womb was a potential nourishment, is a token of dying when is shed” (66). These are important concepts that inform the ritual and are important to the understanding of marriage and roles within the marriage.

Yosepha and Shifra’s feelings were not positive, but not necessarily an instance of oppression, only the lack of human touch which the husband would also suffer. Otherwise the negative responses were just that it was an inconvenience. Some women did feel that the structure of niddah was oppressive or humiliating. The tradition of asking a rabbi to examine a stain and make a decision on her status of clean or unclean. “If a woman observing niddah sees a blood stain, either while she is not menstruating or on the cloth of one of the internal checks during the seven clean days before immersion, she is instructed to ask a rabbi whether this stain renders her unclean” (Hartman and Marmon, 396). A woman interviewed named Deborah explained that she was never comfortable with her stains being examined by the rabbi. Hartman and Marmon are interested in the feminist discourse of the issue. “The feminist claim that religious women’s obligations, and the control of the body and sexuality, constitute a patriarchal exercise of domination and social control” (396). They quote a woman named Tina as saying “What really bothers me are the checks that I have to do inside my body: I sometimes have this feeling that it is the long hands of the rabbis of hundreds of years literally entering my body to check me” (396). Hartman and Marmon interpret her feelings as “violation and domination in an almost physical way” (396).

One quote by a woman named Chava stuck out to me: “I hated the whole thing– from beginning to end. I only did it because I had to, but my life would’ve been much better without it” (398). Many women simply observed the laws of niddah because it was halakah and observing the ritual actually made them feel more a part of the Jewish community– the ritual informed their identity.

Just as Hartman and Marmon finish their discussion of the laws of niddah in the positive responses, so will I not only because my notes are in the same order of the way that their article was written, but its an interesting way to end their discussion. They do conclude by condemning the law as within a patriarchal system. Many women made the statements that the law was empowering to the observant women. Yael explained that only her and “God know what’s going on there” (399). Some women enjoyed the time alone while they were niddah and some could even choose when to visit the mikveh and to end the “white days.” “These informants feel that their tradition embodies a feminist voice in that it responds to needs of women’s bodies, minds, and souls, that it is not merely prescriptive, telling them what they can and cannot do with their bodies, but descriptive of their own deepest understanding and experience of themselves” (401). Is the law oppressive or is it simply a mitzvot just like any other? A part of daily Orthodox Jewish life? In general there are many issues of gender within the tradition but if the women that practice feel empowered by the law which way does it go while some women are embarrassed an unhappy? I don’t have an answer, but it’s an interesting question.

Adler, Rachel.  “Tumah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings.”  The Jewish Woman.  ed. Elizabeth Koltun.  New York: Schocken Books, 1976.  Print.

Hartman, Tova and Marmon, Naomi.  “Lived Regulation, Systemic Attributions: Menstrual Separation and Ritual Immersion in the Experience of Orthodox Jewish Women.”  Gender and Society 18.  June 2004.  389-408.  JSTOR