by Chevy Weiss
The Jewish Week
December 4, 2003
Anat Zuria, director of "Tehora" (Purity), a documentary about the laws of taharat hamishpacha (family purity), told the Jewish Week’s Julia Goldman that in the course of making the film she never met a woman who told her how much she loved the laws of taharat hamishpacha ("Filmaking with Purity," October 31). These laws, she explains, "are based on the experience of men and on their ideas of what a woman is or should be."
That Zuria herself should resent the laws of family purity is perhaps no surprise. They were forced upon her as the price for marrying a religious soldier with whom she fell in love while serving in the Israeli Army. As Zuria told Ha’aretz’s Yair Sheleg, she came from a completely secular background and continued to view herself as secular even after her marriage. Her husband offered her no explanations of the mitzvah at all. "That’s the halacha, and that’s that," was all he told her.
But Zuria’s portrayal of the experience of the laws of family purity, culminating in a woman’s immersion in a mikveh prior to resuming physical relations with her husband, will strike most religious women, such as me, as wildly incongruous with our own experiences.
Far from experiencing the laws of family purity as imposed upon us by a cruel patriarchy, we find them perfectly suited to our own biological clocks. Dr. Channah Catane, a Jerusalem gynecologist, reports that many of her patients seek hormone treatment after menopause just so they can continue going to the mikveh.
Debra Renee Kaufman, a feminist sociologist at Rutgers, interviewed 150 ba’alot teshuva for her book Rachel’s Daughters. She found that these women expressed a remarkable degree of enthusiasm for the mitzvah as an expression of their femininity. One Ph.D psychologist told Kaufman, "I had counseled many young people about sexual practices. When I first read about taharat mishpacha, [the rules] made absolutely good sense to me psychologically."
Another told her, "The family purity laws are so in line with me as a woman. . . [I]t is commanded that I not be sexually taken for granted, that I have two weeks each month for myself."
The women interviewed by Kaufman described the laws relating to their menstrual cycles as rich in symbolism. "Renewal and regeneration of life forces are themes that run throughout these commentaries," Kaufman writes. The women describe "their sexuality within marriage not as a biological need or self-expression, but rather as holy ritual. The symbolic framework emerging from their language, imagery and experiences moves beyond the self and dyad to the community at large."
When they immerse in the mikveh, Kaufman’s baalot teshuva report a feeling of connection to all Jewish women throughout history. "The Jews at Masada used the mikveh," one muses.
Far from hiding the laws surrounding the menstrual cycle, Orthodox groups have increasingly publicized them, as they have turned out to be a major draw for bringing non-observant Jewish women to greater religious observance. Suzanne Kest of Los Angeles describes, in a letter to the Jerusalem Post, secular women "brought to tears" by her descriptions of the laws of family purity and a society in which every move is not subject to the lens of male appraisal.
Sure the 12 to 14 days of monthly separation are difficult (presumably no less so for our husbands who are equally required to refrain from physical contact), but most of us find the payoff is more than worth it. A constantly rejuvenated marriage and the need to fully develop non-physical forms of communication with one’s spouse are two of those rewards.
The Talmud describes the laws of family purity as designed to render a woman like a new bride in her husband’s eyes every month. And theory and practice seem to go together. Pioneer sexologist Albert Kinsey found, that over a lifetime Orthodox Jews have the most frequent sexual relations. The alternating periods of separation and coming together sustain excitement long after other couples have lost it.
Kaufman reports that privacy surrounding sexual relations in the Orthodox world seems to stimulate the sexuality of those she interviewed. As one woman told her, they focus all our "God-given libido, like a laser beam, on the marital bed."
It would be a pity if Zuria’s bitter, one-sided film were to keep Jewish women from discovering the beauty of the laws of family purity.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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