Note: This post is part of a series. Please scroll down for other posts and introduction. Also, this post is NOT intended to be read by men... read at your own risk...
The reason that this subject has fallen under the 'bathroom' label in this series is because it will be about a 'potty talk' subject for women and something that men do not normally like to talk about: menstrual cycles. The reason that I would prefer that men not read it (other than my husband of course) is because I feel that menstruation is something that they should discuss with their own wives or read about it in medical texts.
The heart of this entry will be focused less on the actual menstrual cycle (there are many other places to find that information) and more on what orthodox Judaism calls "family purity" or "the laws of niddah" ...simply stated, abstaining from sex with your husband during your period.
First, let me say that menstruation is a monthly miracle (as hard as that it to believe for us sometimes!) Without it, we are unable to conceive children. Although many would view the laws of "family purity" as archaic or outdated, they really are more a celebration of life and the importance of intimacy within marriage. In Biblical times, a menstruating woman was considered "unclean" and "impure"... and if you really think about it, she was! Before the invention of maxi pads and tampons, what would she use to keep herself clean besides rags or pieces of cloth? That's all there was! So I imagine that she was probably hindered from her usual activities (much more so than modern women) and she had to stay close to home. The label "unclean" didn't mean that she had done something wrong, it simply meant that she was in a state of temporary vulnerability. When the menstrual cycle begins, a woman understands that the possibility for life in her womb at that time has ended, so in essence, there is a whisper of death. The uterus must shed its lining, cleaning itself out for the next opportunity to cradle a child... it is preparing to start over. Quoting again from the book, Jewish Women Speak about Jewish Matters, "when stripped to its essence, a woman's menses signals the death of potential life. Each month a woman's body prepares for the possibility of conception. The uterine lining is built up-- rich and replete, ready to serve as a cradle for life-- in anticipation of a fertilized ovum. Menstruation is the shedding of the lining, the end of this possibility. The presence of potential life within fills a woman's body with holiness and purity. With the departure of this potential, impurity sets in, conferring upon the woman a state of impurity or, even more specifically, niddut. Impurity is neither evil nor dangerous, and it is not something tangible. Impurity is a spiritual state of being, the absence of purity, much as darkness is the absence of light." (p.77)
Impurity is very a hard concept for the modern mind to grasp, because we don't tend to have a very holistic view of how the world and our bodies work. Therefore, science develops birth control pills that manipulate our bodies into having only four periods a year! Obviously, this is not what G-d intended, and I am glad that people cannot stop the cycles of the moon or seasons, because G-d's cycles are meant to teach us about the cycle of life. Even believers have difficulty with this concept, especially since there is no physical Temple standing in Jerusalem. I am not claiming to fully understand it either, but perhaps the impure were restricted from the Temple because they were reminders of death.... menstruating women, diseased or injured people, abnormal or physically "imperfect" people... the only thing that these people would have in common is that they make people ponder death and suffering. The Temple was to be a place of life and worship. Since G-d created the menstrual cycle (and also created some people blind, lame, etc.), these impurities were not punishment for sin.
When a woman of child-bearing age (a.k.a. woman who menstruates) becomes one with a man through marriage, that is when the issue of family purity comes along. There is no physical Temple, so how do we apply this mitzvah (commandment) to our lives? Although I don't believe that menstruating women should be restricted from houses of worship (how embarrassing that would be!), I feel that there is something to be applied here. At the very least, I don't think
G-d intends married women to have sexual intimacy with their husbands when they are menstruating. This is something that my husband and I discussed before we got married, and we do abstain from intercourse during this time of the month. In orthodox Judaism, married couples also wait for seven more days after the end of the menstrual cycle and after the woman has gone through a mikveh (ritual bath for immersion). The mikveh is to show that the woman has become pure again and that her status has changed. Afterwards, she is intimately reunited with her husband. Although I don't have access to a mikveh at this time, I think that this is a beautiful practice, and there are messianic believers who build mikveot for this purpose. Perhaps someday I will also have access to a mikveh, and until then I will apply this mitzvah to my life as much as possible.
If you are new to this concept, perhaps it sounds restrictive. The aforementioned book gives a wonderful perspective that will help us to focus on the benefits (blessings) of applying family purity to our lives: "At first glance, the mikveh system speaks of limitations and constraints-- a loss of freedom. In truth, emancipation is born of restriction. Secure, confident, well-adjusted children (and adults) are disciplined children; they understand restraint and ultimately learn self-control. The drawing of parameters creates terra firma amid chaos and confusion and allows for traversing the plain we call life in a progressive and productive manner. And in no area of life is this more necessary than in our most intimate relationships. Over time, open-ended sexual availability leads to a waning of excitement and even interest. Mikveh's monthly hiatus teaches couples to treasure the time they have together. They count the days until they can be together, and each time there is a new quality to their reunion. In this regard, the Talmud states, "So that she will be as beloved as on the day of her marriage." In this way, they are constantly involved in an ongoing process of becoming 'one flesh.'" (pp.79-80) In other words, family purity not only will prove to be beneficial to marriage if practiced, it can also prove to be detrimental if not put into practice.
Family purity not only benefits the married couple, it benefits us as married women. It offers us a "measure of solitude and introspection. There is additionally, an empowering feeling of autonomy over our bodies, and indeed, over the sexual relationship we share with our spouses... (let me clarify: this 'empowering' should not lead us to try to dominate our husbands or use withholding sex as a weapon for getting them to do what we want. That is not Biblical. It should have more of the effect of raising our self-esteem and causing us to feel good about our bodies, which is always rewarding to our husbands as well)... There is strength and comfort in the knowledge that human beings can neither have their every whim nor be had at whim." (Jewish Women Speak... p. 80)
Because the mitzvot concerning the laws of niddah are Temple-dependent, married couples need to come to an understanding of how they will observe them and to what extent. The important thing is that it is consensual, and both the husband and wife are in full agreement. As messianic believers, we hold Rabbi Sha'ul of Tarsus in high regard and he tells the Corinthians this: "The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But this I say by way of concession, not of command." 1 Corinthians 7:3-6
I like to think of my menstruating self as a closed flower, still beautiful to my husband, but temporarily unavailable... until that day that I bloom once again. Let us strive to view menstruation as the miracle that it is (not The Curse, or the unwanted monthly 'visitor"), and seek G-d's face in understanding the importance of cycles and seasons in His creation, including us. During this Passover season, may we rejoice that He has given us a picture of renewal and 'starting over' even in our own bodies. Indeed, we are wonderfully and fearfully made...