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Menstruants and Mystics

Absent Medieval Women

Why were there no female Jewish mystics in the Middle Ages? The striking absence of women visionaries in the historical record — rendered even more conspicuous by the prominence of female mystics in both medieval Christianity and medieval Islam — inspired Forsaken: The Menstruant in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Brandeis University Press, $35.00), by Sharon Faye Koren, a professor of medieval Jewish culture at Hebrew Union College in New York.     

Koren’s central thesis is that women were barred from mystical pursuits because menstrual impurity was increasingly cast as antithetical to the sanctity that both facilitated and defined spiritual union with God. Koren traces this to the very beginnings of Jewish mysticism. Following the destruction of the Temple in the first century, mystics envisioned ascending to a heavenly sanctuary, where ritual purity was required of those who wished to enter, much as it had been in its counterpart on earth. Consequently, mystical aspirants avoided contact with sources of contamination, including menstruants. The strictures of cultic purity retained their relevance long after they were (largely) abandoned by normative halakhic Judaism. But as mystical tradition developed, technical concerns spawned deeper theosophical ideas. Menstruation became a potent symbol of spiritual impurity, destructive forces and, ultimately, of evil itself.

While some scholars have suggested that women’s lack of education and other environmental factors were the main impediment to their participation in a deeply intellectual mystical tradition, Koren argues that the real answer is inherent in the Jewish mystical texts themselves. As kabbalists began to perceive menstruation to be a pollutant not only on earth, but in the heavens too, the demonization of menstruants “filtered into popular culture and had an impact on the spiritual opportunities of Jewish women in medieval society.”

This is a bold and somewhat tenuous contention. It is difficult to prove that theoretical constructs and theosophical ideas — have a direct impact, beyond the text, on the real lives of women (or men). Koren notes that Jewish mystical ideas are closely wedded to ritual practice, since Kabbalistic theology posits that religious acts performed by human beings on earth trigger parallel responses in the divine realms. (For example, married couples who engage in sanctioned sex at sanctified times, such as Friday night, are believed to initiate union between male and female elements of the Godhead.)

She also points to ways in which the Kabbalistic aversion to menstruation has had an impact on normative religious practice throughout the centuries, citing a twentieth-century ban on menstruants looking at a raised Torah scroll or entering a cemetery, and other such rulings.

The author’s more compelling observation is that the absence of female mystics from the historical register does not mean that medieval Jewish women had no mystical experiences; only that any experiences they may have had were lost to history because they were not deemed meaningful or acceptable by the men who transmitted knowledge and tradition. Thus, even in the early modern period, when menstruation figured less prominently in Jewish mystical thought and women participated in Hassidic and messianic movements, records of women who served as spiritual leaders or recognized mystics are few and far between.

Koren’s book contains a wealth of scholarship beyond the mystical. In a discussion of the intersection between science, myth, and law, the author surveys classical theories concerning women’s anatomy and biological functions and their reception in medieval Jewish (and Christian) scholarly circles. She laments the devastating historical consequences of conjoining a misogynist theology with scientific theories that justify women’s inferiority.

The final section of her study is a fascinating survey of Islamic and Christian beliefs regarding gender, religious praxis, and access to the divine. Here Koren demonstrates that unlike medieval Judaism, which focused on ritual purity as the essential prerequisite for mystical experience, Islam emphasized purity of heart, and Christianity emphasized celibacy, neither of which served as impediments to women’s participation.

Much of Koren’s book is devoted to detailed explanations of esoteric ideas and close readings of medieval texts, and the material can be dense. But for readers with enough stamina to plough through intense, academic discourse, Forsaken offers an intriguing examination of the ways in which femininity and femaleness were depicted in a significant branch of pre-modern Jewish thought.

Rachel Furst teaches Talmud and Jewish law and is working on a Ph.D. in medieval Jewish history at the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem.