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The crossroads where feminism and religious Judaism meet can make for a stimulating space. Feminism's best trait - re-examining every given with a fresh eye - mixes with Orthodoxy's most salient one - seriousness - and the results can be bracing yet not acrimonious.
That was certainly the case at a recent heavily attended panel discussion devoted to nidda, the period of marital separation following menstruation, when a charismatic Orthodox gynecologist and a mother-of-10 bridal counselor took up an impassioned call to rethink the rules by which Jewish couples have lived their intimate lives over the past 1,600 years. The session was part of a two-day international conference organized by Kolech, the Religious Women's Forum, which was held at the Pavilion Conference Center under the heading "To Be a Jewish Woman."
While the Bible (Leviticus, Chapter 15) stipulates a set period of seven days, counting from the onset of each menstral cycle, of sexual abstinence followed by ritual immersion, Jewish practice following the destruction of the Temple was to pile on stringency upon stringency, which ultimately resulted in enjoining Jewish couples from physical contact for some 14 or more days each month.
The most significant of these added restrictions occurred when nidda (menstrual blood from which a woman purified herself seven days after the onset of bleeding) began to be treated as the biblical ziva (abnormal discharge). Immersion for ziva can take place only after seven "clean" days have been counted following its cessation.
Dr. Daniel Rosenak created a furor last fall when he and veteran bridal counselor Rivka Shimon published an interview in the official organ of the Religious Zionist movement, Hatzofeh, which asked whether the time had not come to reexamine the stringencies that the sages and the Jewish people had taken on over the years in the practice of the original mitzva.
He projects from his medical experience that some five to seven percent of all observant couples are rendered halachically - though not medically - infertile because the wife's regular monthly cycle is too short. Also, sometimes the constant body checking that ziva - but not nidda - requires in itself accounts for superfluous bleeding, which further delays immersion.
Among all Orthodox couples, even those who do succeed in conceiving at some point, 25% of all cycles are rendered infertile because the immersion date falls past that month's ovulation.
Rosenak related at the conference that struck by the suffering he continually witnessed, he had been mulling over the issue for some 10 years before Shimon's courage in going public with the issue in 2004 on Maariv's Web site, NRG, prodded him to publish his own halachic inquiries in such respected religious Zionist journals and portals as De'ot.
Both Rosenak and Shimon, who was the opening speaker at the session, were moved in the first instance by health concerns - the medical solutions to the problem, which they believe are intrusive and even dangerous. Doctors commonly prescribe estrogen, similar to the type taken for Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), but a higher dose, to delay ovulation.
Rosenak quoted a study published in 2003 in the New England Journal of Medicine that found that a decrease in the number of prescriptions for HRT in the US between 2001 and 2003 led to a drastic decrease in the incidence of breast cancer.
Another common solution proposed by doctors and rabbis is artificial insemination rather than intercourse before mikve immersion.
Beyond the medical issues, Rosenak points out the halachic incongruities of the added stringencies. For instance, that of a rabbinical decree - one that Rosenak argues can, and in fact has, in halachic debate been viewed as custom and not law - trumping biblical commandment and preventing couples from fulfilling the first commandment of the Bible: procreation.
Just because of that incongruity, for years rabbis have been known to give permission to women to immerse according to the original biblical prescription. Some rabbis are also known to give similar permission to couples in special circumstances - the newly observant just starting out on, or the formerly religious on their way back to, the path of observance - who otherwise might not be able to keep the laws of separation and immersion whatsoever.
The halachic ramification for violating the basic law of family purity is one of the most severe: karet, or being spiritually cut off from the Jewish people. The offspring of couples not practicing family purity are considered "children of nidda."
Shimon and Rosenak point out that many more couples in Israel today would follow family purity laws if that did not entail the two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off pattern.
Rosenak notes again the incongruity of rabbinic severity originating in doubt - the loss of the tradition of discerning between nidda (menstrual) and ziva (discharge) - that causes certain violation among a large proportion of the Jewish people.
Some rabbis now realize, claimed Shimon, that unless a rethink of the current practice of nidda takes place, there could be no hope of rebuilding the Temple and following its rites. Biblical law prescribes that a woman must purify herself after ziva by a ceremony at the Temple, bringing two doves as a sacrifice - a scenario rendered invalid when every nidda is automatically treated as ziva, as according to strict halachic categorization, ironically enough, she is not considered even a possible ziva.
For his part, Rosenak noted that plenty of the religious public are perfectly content if the traditionally inclined practice can't manage to observe family purity, as it keeps the divide between the "secular" and the "religious" distinct.
Ultimately, Rosenak's intent is a meta-halachic one: retune a particular Halacha so that it returns to its original intent. Among his many arguments is that rabbinic decrees and even established custom can be rescinded when past assumptions no longer apply or are seen to actually cause halachic harm. He points out examples of rabbinic decrees that are no longer kept.
Now that scientific development reveals that the added restriction results in needless infertility that is then combatted by inherently dangerous or distasteful methods - in addition to triggering discontent between husband and wife, and the discouragement of the masses of the Jewish people from even contemplating the practice of the primal mitzva of family purity - the rabbis should be called upon to rescind them.
The Zionist-shaded vision of Shimon and Rosenak is refracted in the sources, with the lengthening of the abstinence period linked to the destruction of the sovereign Jewish state: in one halachic debate over the rabbinical restrictions, for instance, a sage suddenly breaks off the discussion in despair, asking the not quite rhetorical question, who cares about the length of marital abstinence in the wake of the ultimate disaster of the destruction of the Temple.
But as Dr. Deena Zimmerman, a halachic counselor who was one of the two opposing voices on the session panel, pointed out, the traditional knowledge of discerning between nidda blood and that of ziva being lost so many years ago, it is unlikely to be suddenly rediscovered now. Halacha has indeed changed, and abrogating the extra week of abstinence was as inconceivable as eating chicken and cheese together (an example of a relatively late rabbinical kashrut restriction).
This session of the fifth bi-annual Kolech conference illustrates the vibrant niche that the organization has carved out for itself. It is hard to conceive of such a controversial issue being addressed in any other religious forum.
Religious debate, in common with political one, can be virulent, but on this panel the speakers vied in displaying politeness - even esteem - toward one other. Religious feminism has managed to do credit to both sides of its equation.