AuthorLaufer-Ukeles, Pamela
PositionSymposium Conference: Are You There Law? It's Me, Menstruation
  1. Intro: The Many Faces of Menstruation

    Menstruation has many faces. This Essay will discuss competing narratives relating to menstruation as portrayed in Jewish law and culture, and assess the implications of such narratives for modern legal systems. These narratives depict menstruation in all its contradictions--as taboo and power, as health and imperfection, and as reflecting biological difference but not inequality. Each narrative will be discussed from a textual, legal, communal and, occasionally, personal perspective, conveying different meanings that have different cultural impacts, modern applications and reflect different aspects of the quest for equality.

    Together, these narratives provide a holistic vision of womanhood that resists simplification. Acknowledging that not only women menstruate, in this Essay I refer to women as those who menstruate because this is the category associated with menstruation used in Jewish law and it is the complexity of womanhood revealed by Jewish law and culture that I address. (1) These four faces of menstruation are not characterized as positive or negative in and of themselves; rather, I analyze them each on their own terms, discussing how they may impact women in both negative and positive ways. The variability of these narratives demonstrates the need for women to shape their own narratives around their bodies in order to empower themselves within their communities. Moreover, the multiplicity of faces that menstruation involves, and the different ways that femininity can therefore impact womanhood, counsels promoting menstrual justice in a variety of ways, and from a variety of perspectives, creatively empowering women by recognizing their individual complexity. In Jewish law, menstruation engenders impurity, authority, fertility, and biological difference, and each of these faces of womanhood will be discussed in turn.

  2. Blood as Stain and Impurity

    In Jewish law, the primary face of menstruation is impurity. When a woman menstruates, discharging blood from the vagina, Jewish law, in at times uncomfortably technical and unscientific ways, decrees that she is "niddah." Niddah means "separation" and is used to describe ritual impurity. (2) The law instructs that vaginal blood can contaminate and desecrate; thus, during her menstruating and seven days thereafter, a woman must separate from her husband, and historically refrain from other sacred rituals until she purifies herself by immersing in a ritual bath. (3)

    In other instances the concept of niddah is associated with sexual deviance and idolatry. (4) It is also understood to connote "sickness" according to Rabbinic authorities or a curse according to the Babylonian Talmud. (5) Not all blood contaminates under Jewish law, just menstrual blood. (6) A man who lays with his wife during niddah is punishable by excommunication (karet). (7) Indeed, to ensure that men keep away from menstrual blood, some Rabbinical sources suggested that conceiving a child with a woman who is niddah will spiritually pollute him and his offspring thereafter by rendering the child illegitimate (mamzer). (8)

    This characterization of natural female biological processes as defiling can be experienced as rejection and degradation. (9) Indeed, I had a female Jewish law instructor, considered widely to be a great scholar, who studied these laws in such detail that she could not contemplate marriage. She explained that she would not subject herself to purification rituals because of her body's natural (and life-giving) processes. However, she would also not put a man in the position of needing to break the law in order to touch his wife. In fact, the perceived unfairness of these laws' treatment of the female body became so overwhelming to her that she left the study of Jewish law entirely.

    Other Jewish law scholars try to distance themselves from such desecrating symbolism, focusing on the more technical aspects of the process of women's purity rituals, (10) comparing them to impurity resulting from the spilled seed from ejaculation outside of sex. (11) Ritual acts that separate times of the month need not necessarily imply illness or subordinate women, despite semantics. Indeed, many religious couples find the constant renewal after times of separation refreshing and beneficial to their relationships.

    While this perspective may seem remote, it is also still relevant. Blood physically sullies the body in real and messy ways. Although we might have a sense of when it is expected, the menses exact arrival comes as a surprise each month. (12) Studies demonstrate that menstrual "leaks" are common in every menstrual cycle, (13) resulting in lack of preparation with necessary products, causing absence from various educational and professional functions. (14) Therefore, those who menstruate may experience panic and unsightly stains in public, creating the potential for embarrassment and shame every month.

    In this regard, the laws of the workplace and public spaces abandon women in a manner that reinforces menstruation as sickness. Tampons and pads are rarely available, even for purchase, in public facilities. Since menstruation is a regular concern for over fifty percent of the population, this reality is difficult to explain. Toilet paper is free and accessible, why are sanitary napkins different? (15) The intuitive explanation is that blood, or any sign of it, is better hidden. Similar to disgust towards public breastfeeding, there is a distaste for public allusions to menstruation. (16)

    Moreover, sanitary products are not cheap. (17) Women living below or near the poverty line often struggle to access products allowing them to maintain regular life during menstruation. Only a few states obligate public high schools to provide sanitary products in bathrooms. (18) New York has banned taxes on such products. (19) And one, singular town in...

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