Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

September 23, 2013 by

Laws Aren’t Beautiful. People Are Beautiful.

medium_490875588When I think of Rosh Hashanah, I am immediately struck by the drama of the Day of Judgment. I think of a time of introspection, of melodic prayers and inspiring poetry, of sweet foods eaten with family and close friends.

I do not think of sex.

That is, I never used to think of sex in relation to Rosh Hashanah, until a friend sent me an article which attempted to link the two. In an elegant and vivid piece, Merissa Nathan Gerson characterizes honey, a food prevalent as we celebrate the New Year, as the creative result of the unbridled sexual energy of the abstinent worker bees. Suddenly, dipping the apple in honey was no longer a simple act to symbolize a sweet new year.

Gerson takes her point further, though, comparing the abstinence of the bees to the abstinence practiced by Jewish couples who observe the laws of niddah, often translated (poorly, in my opinion) as “family purity” or sometimes “menstrual purity.” For couples who practice niddah, the laws prohibit intercourse approximately two weeks of every month– from when a woman sees the onset of her period until after she has counted seven days of absolutely no blood. For many, the laws also include prohibitions of sleeping in the same bed, any form of touch, and even passing items directly from one person to the other. This system, argues Gerson, causes the sexual energy to build up, giving couples a store of vivacity and enthusiasm that can be channeled into enhancing other areas of Jewish life.

“For Jewish couples that observe the laws of niddah, half the month is then reorganized, redirecting sexual energy into the community, into the work of protecting the “queen”—the sanctity of the Sabbath. During the periods of abstinence, this energy is used to perform acts of tikkun olam, study Torah, or generally apply oneself toward the greater good of the Jewish collective. While bees produce honey, I like to think of Jewish laws around sex as yielding something, too: a sweet substance that comes in the form of tzekadah, of building community, and making the world brighter through devotional practice.”

My challenges to this argument are almost too numerous to count. Are we incapable of making a beautiful Shabbat dinner when we are permitted to have sex? Do we assume that all our energy should be, or is, channeled to sex at other times of the month? Do we truly live in this binary in which we have a limited amount of energy that can either be applied towards sex or to improving the world? And, if so, do people who do not have prohibitions on having sex do less to improve the world around them? Do people who are not in relationships have a greater obligation of tikkun olam– repairing the world? Is there a way to measure our sexual energy to ensure that at times when we are niddah we are exerting the proper amount of energy into the Jewish community? Are pregnant women and nursing mothers who are amenorrheic exempt from contributing to the improvement of the world and the betterment of the Jewish community? Do we consider women who choose to skip periods using hormonal birth control methods also to be exempt, or would we still consider them obligated to apply themselves toward the greater good of the Jewish collective since their absence of a period is chemical? Or, like niddah, does one’s commitment to Torah study and tikkun olam only begin when one sees the flow of blood?

My questions may seem facetious, but they attempt to get at the heart of an issue I have struggled with for years, only brought closer to the surface by this article. I do not take the laws of niddah lightly; indeed, as a kallah teacher– as someone who teaches brides and couples about the laws of niddah prior to their wedding, and who helps advise couples on concerns that may arise around the laws of niddah throughout their relationship– I have devoted years of study to the laws of niddah and take these practices quite seriously. It is because of my involvement with countless people at this deeply personal, often painful and always complicated piece of their lives, that I find Gerson’s assertions to be so problematic. Though I am delighted and even proud that she sees such beauty in these laws and practices that I hold so dear, the assumption that these laws are inherently beautiful is intensely problematic. It is precisely because people who talk about niddah publicly– rare and brave as they are– often talk about the beauty, the intensity, the richness, the power of these practices, that individuals who struggle with these laws feel ostracized, embarrassed, ashamed, and alone. It is in that space, in that dark and isolated emotional state, that people feel paralyzed to seek out help– perhaps for a sexual dysfunction, an emotional barrier, or a theological question– only perpetuating a spiraling web that becomes more and more entangled (to mix my arthropod metaphors).

Gerson is not alone in this. In attaching so much meaning to the laws of niddah and in placing such emphasis on the beauty of the practice, many have asserted all value onto the system of laws and taken all credit away from the people who practice the laws. This is the crux of the problem. Quite simply: laws are not beautiful; people are beautiful.

I commonly tell the brides and couples I teach that the laws of niddah, much like the laws of Shabbat, are just that: laws. They dictate a lifestyle, and, while we can have reactions to the lifestyles guided by these laws, that lifestyle is not inherently good nor is it inherently bad. Those of us who have kept the laws of Shabbat have experienced a Sabbath in which we have felt ourselves elevated, in which we witnessed firsthand the beauty and sanctity of the day, in which we felt our bodies and souls nurtured by the food, prayers, songs, and community which surrounds us on that day. Those of us who have kept the laws of Shabbat have also experienced a Sabbath in which we have felt ourselves frustrated, perhaps even depressed. This difference is not found in the laws– on both of those days an individual may have abstained from using electricity, may have sanctified the day by reciting the kiddush, may have made the blessing over bread. Rather,  it is in what the people involved did to enhance the day. It is we who cook special foods, who invite close friends to our home, who sing songs. It is we– people– who insert the beauty into the box that is built by the laws. 

So, too, with the laws of niddah. There are, of course, couples who feel their relationship enhanced through their practice of niddah; some who feel closer to one another after two weeks of connecting only on a mental and emotional level without any physical interference; some who feel a heightened sense of attraction for a partner after a significant absence of a corporeal connection.  Yet there are also couples who feel distant from one another during niddah, who feel an invisible wall appear between them, who grapple with their understanding of a system of laws that comes into effect based on a woman’s menstrual cycle. There are couples who struggle to feel comfortable with a physical relationship when it is prohibited for half of their time together. Their experience– and pain– of niddah is no less real and no less legitimate. 

Like Shabbat, it is up to us to infuse niddah with beauty. It is up to us to make our relationship vibrant and exciting, whether through the laws of niddah or in spite of them. It is up to us to find ways to connect with our partners emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. It is up to us to talk openly and honestly. It is up to us to admit out loud that it can be difficult. It is up to us to make the effort.

If, after all that, a person can boast a healthy sexual relationship, beautiful Shabbat meals, a yearning to do mitzvot, and a desire to change the world, then the credit is all their own.

As we prepare to celebrate the holiday of Simchat Torah, the holiday in which we complete the yearly cycle of Torah readings and begin anew from Genesis, let us learn from this example. As soon as we read the end of the Torah, we immediately start again. The Torah is a living document, and we are taught that it requires constant study, interaction, and attention. We do not sit passively and wait for the Torah to enlighten us; we grapple with it, explore it, experiment with it, and, in doing so, keep the Torah fresh and new.

So, too, with Shabbat. So, too, with niddah. And so, too, with our own relationships.

This Simchat Torah, as I put my honey away to mark the end of our High Holiday season, I will again be thinking of the bees who helped create this honey. But I will not be thinking of the sex– or rather, lack thereof– that helped birth this tasty treat. Instead, I will be thinking of their energy, dedication, devotion, and effort. I will be thinking of our own energy, dedication, devotion, and effort that goes into making the holiday what I am sure will be an exciting, uplifting day. And I will be thinking of the energy, dedication, devotion, and effort that is required to keep my own relationship exciting, uplifting, fresh, and new. That is what is truly beautiful. 


 

photo credit: Danny Perez Photography via photopin cc


  • Jonathan Baker

    No, Ms. Picker-Neiss, your questions aren’t facetious, they’re a reasonable response to a fatuous essay. Sometimes people stretch too far to impose seasonal “meaning” on religious practices. I get the impression that this Ms. Gerson had some vague idea linking New Years’ honey with “the birds and the bees”, and came up with this nonsense.

    E.g., “Merissa Nathan Gerson characterizes honey, a food prevalent as we celebrate the New Year, as the creative result of the unbridled sexual energy of the abstinent worker bees.”

    Makes the honey sound like, um, “the seed of lying down.” Eww. It’s well known that honey is bee vomit, which is bad enough.

    Another perspective on niddah, in addition to mental closeness, attraction, or distancing: if we generally justify the tumah as a response to the loss of potential life, to those who are infertile, frustration. It seems like an incredible waste of time and religious energy (and $25/month for mikva fees and cloths) to deal with something that is a response to something that will NEVER happen (absent a miracle). Which is another question for Ms. Gerson.

  • EdCodish

    Rori – thank you for this well-reasoned, articulate response. So much of what’s written about Jewish practice is apologetics, leaving those of us who feel uninspired by certain laws feeling even worse than before, as you so very rightly point out. As a former day school teacher, I was burdened by my students’ descriptions of horrific Shabbatot in their Orthodox homes (tables as war zones of fighting over minutiae of observance; one girl was forbidden to come to dinner in pants and therefore went without Shabbat dinner for years) and worried that experiencing Shabbat in our home was so paltry a ‘tikkun’ to their conditioning as to be virtually pointless.