Monday, April 23, 2007

Conservative Teshuvot on Mikveh: The Language Issue

For Shabbat Tazria-Metzorah, I spoke about the teshuvot on mikveh recently released by the CJLS. These were not very well publicized, mainly, I imagine, because they were overshadowed by the teshuvot on homosexuality.* I intended to blog about the mikveh teshuvot once I finished blogging about the ones on homosexuality, but I don't seem to be making much progress with the latter, so I may as well address the mikveh teshuvot now. Like my d'var torah, however, this post will focus on the issue of terminology rather than the technical halakhic aspects of the teshuvot, which I'm still working through.

Okay. A few preliminary points:

  1. The biblical concept of tum'ah (usually translated "impurity" or "defilement") is unambiguously negative. The clearest evidence of this is its frequent use as a metaphor for sin. This does not mean, of course, that contracting impurity is inherently sinful; impurity is caused by all sorts of unavoidable things, such as illness, sexual intercourse, and handling a corpse (someone's gotta do it). An analogy that I like to use is illness: Being sick doesn't reflect negatively the person who suffers from the illness, but we do recognize the condition as negative, and we therefore often use illness as a metaphor for morally negative traits ("that man is sick").

  2. In biblical law, menstrual impurity (niddah) is no more severe than forms of impurity that affect men (ejaculation, penile discharge) or men as well as women (scale disease, contact with a human corpse, etc.).

  3. Since the major consequence of impurity is that it bars one from contact with the sancta, rabbinic law as it ultimately developed regards most purity regulations as irrelevant for practical purposes now that the Temple is no longer standing. Niddah is an exception for a purely technical reason: Leviticus 18:19 prohibits sex with a woman in a state of menstrual defilement (tum'at niddah). This, according to rabbinic reasoning, necessitates that a menstruating woman refrain from sex with her husband for a fixed duration of time (see below) and then immerse in a mikveh.

  4. Over time, the laws of niddah became increasingly stringent. Perhaps the most significant stringency was the conflation of the categories of niddah and zavah, with the result that couples had to wait seven days from the cessation of menstruation rather than from the onset of menstruation before resuming intimacy. This approximately doubled the length of the period of separation to about half of every month (for those who struggle with arithmetic). This is the halakhah as it is observed in contemporary Orthodox communities (at least in theory).

Now, a summary of the teshuvot:

Rabbi Miriam Grossman, following an argument advanced by Rabbi Joel Roth, rules that niddah be observed for seven days beginning at the onset of menstruation (or until bleeding ceases), in keeping with the original Torah law. She also differs from traditional Orthodox opinion in permitting non-sexual physical contact between husband and wife during niddah, eliminating the requirement of internal self-exams (bedikot), and accepting certain other leniencies. The purpose of these leniencies is to make the laws easier for more Jews to observe and to avoid putting strain on relationships. Grossman also advocates mikveh use outside marriage, particularly by women who are sexually active (in keeping with the Conservative movement's current position on premarital sex: "We don't approve, but we know you'll do it anyway").

At least as important for Grossman as these practical halakhic matters is the terminology used to refer them. She rejects "purity" language (that is, the terminology I've used throughout this post) in favor of the language of "holiness." Mikveh use, in her opinion, should be viewed as a means of sanctifying the body and sexual relationships rather than as a means of determining a woman's ritual status. In a 1992 article in Conservative Judaism Magazine entitlted "Feminism, Midrash, and Mikvah," she wrote:

one cannot talk about purity (taharah). . . without calling to mind -- if only subconsciously-- the fact that it is a relative state in contradistiction to impurity (tum'ah)... [S]uch an association has a negative impact for women. (Similarly, we would not want to use the term Niddah laws, as niddah can also be defined as "defiled.")

In the article, Rabbi Grossman proposed using the phrase kedushat mishpachah, "family sanctity." In her teshuvah, she proposes substituting kedushat yetzirah, "the sanctity of God's creation," to shift the emphasis away from the marital relationship and toward a woman's own relationship with her body. (Personally, I think it's a bit idealistic to try to introduce language that no one familiar with the subject will understand, but I appreciate the conundrum.)

Miriam Berkovitz maintains the rabbinic model of waiting seven days following the cessation of menstruation, though she rules leniently with regard to non-sexual contact, internal exams, and various other matters. Berkovitz concedes that it might be a good idea to use the language of holiness rather than purity, but she considers it important to maintain the traditional focus on marital life, so she opts for Grossman's earlier phrase, kedushat yetzirah.

Rabbi Avraham Reisner, like Susan Grossman, argues for returning to the biblical seven-day model, though he does so on slightly different halakhic grounds. He differs from Grossman in retaining the category of zavah, meaning that a woman experiencing an irregular flow of three days or more must wait seven days following the cessation (rather than the onset) of bleeding. Reisner also argues forcefully for maintaining the language of purity. Here's a bit of his argument that I found particularly eloquent:

Fundamental to the biblical description of reality is the notion of the twinned states of tum'ah (impurity) and tohorah (purity), one of which (tum'ah) is incompatible with the sacred....It would be convenient, but inconsistent with the Biblical foundation of our religion, to simply profess disbelief in a system described by the Torah at length. It might be noted, in this regard, that God, the soul and the metaphysical reality of Shabbat in the fabric of the universe are all Biblical notions that remain impervious to scientific address.

Reisner goes on to discuss the theory, promoted by such scholars as Jacob Milgrom and Baruch Levine, that the biblical attribute of impurity is rooted in an association with death. Menstrual blood, like semen, according to this theory, causes impurity because it constitutes a loss of potential life. On this basis, Reisner proposes that the cycle of niddah and purification can be viewed as a process of continual rebirth and renewal.

When I read the voting records for the three teshuvot, I was struck by the fact that Susan Grossman voted in favor of Miriam Berkovits's teshuvah in spite of their radically different practical conclusions, while she voted against Avraham Reisner in spite of their basic agreement on practical halakhah. This brought home like nothing else how important the language issue is to Rabbi Grossman.

Frankly, I can see where both Grossman and Reisner are coming from. On the one hand, I think that the concepts of purity and defilement are worth trying to understand and apply to our lives. On the other hand, applying these consequences to women alone can have troubling implications.

These are my thoughts for now. More later, God willing.

* I'm told that congregational rabbis weren't informed of their existence, which led to some rather awkward moments.