Thursday, January 05, 2006

Niddah- Emotions, Facts, and Philosophy


יט וְאִשָּׁה כִּי-תִהְיֶה זָבָה, דָּם יִהְיֶה זֹבָהּ בִּבְשָׂרָהּ--שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תִּהְיֶה בְנִדָּתָהּ, וְכָל-הַנֹּגֵעַ בָּהּ יִטְמָא עַד-הָעָרֶב.
19 And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be in her impurity seven days; and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even

Leviticus 15:19

~


In the midst of a discussion over at Godol Hador’s blog, specifically the post about the indefensibility of the approach that the Mabul is understandable as a local flood, the topic somehow switched over to menstruation and the laws of niddah. There, Mis-nagid suggested I read Jonah Steinberg’s article, 'From a "Pot of Filth" to a "Hedge of Roses," to further my understanding.

The article is fascinating. It is disturbing and somewhat unsettling, but for the most part, it appears to be true. He writes that "The Rabbis of late antiquity and of the Middle Ages called upon notions of physical danger and disgust to vindicate the laws of menstruation and to exhort their followers to compliance." This seems true, especially due to the extensive documentation he provides in his article.

However, he makes use of several words throughout his article, sprinkling them liberally throughout his prose in attempts to reiterate the same point. These words are "fear, revulsion, disgust and danger." The problem with these words is that they all describe a state of feeling, an emotion, as it were. They seem to state that the Rabbis were personally disgusted, revolted and disgusted by women. They imply that there was a personal grudge held by the Rabbis against women, a desire of the Rabbis to overpower them, to bind them with laws and keep them captive. Indeed, the last sentence of the article is that, "An attempt to move away from attitudes of disgust and fear in response to menstruation, and from devaluation of the female, ought to acknowledge that these all too common responses are not expressed in words alone."

The words "devaluation of the female" are very strong. This lays blame directly at the feet of the Sages, who we are persuaded believed that women were wholly inferior to men and were, indeed "devalued" according to Talmudic law. The apologetics one now sees and reads are, in Jonah Steinberg's view, the response of men and Rabbis attempting to make sense of the Sages and beliefs in terms of our modern world, oftentimes totally negating them. There are ideas and quotes that are espoused by contemporary scholars that seem to go wholly against the spirit of the law as delineated by Chazal. Indeed, these are apologetics, people apologizing to women and to the way they are written about in the Talmud.

The first time I read Jonah's article, I too was caught up in this feeling of anger and confusion. "What?" I asked myself. How could this possibly be? These men appeared to be writing words and laws that spoke of the menstruant as an instrument of danger, that wrote of her as someone disgusting and unwholesome. How, how could this be?

I felt it couldn't be that simple. I reread the article and checked up some of his sources. I also read 'A Hedge of Roses.'

I realized two things-

1. Most of the quotes he uses need to be taken in context
2. Many of the actual words in the article (the few I have cited in particular) lay stressors on ideas that are not necessarily true.

The article is named 'From a "Pot of Filth"... I think this is one of the most important references in the piece. After all, what woman wishes to hear that she is a "pot of filth with a mouth full of blood?" It sounds ugly, disturbing. It sounds as though Chazal are calling women ugly, foul creatures. It sounds like an insult, as though a woman were a piece of dirt.

It's interesting, then, to actually read the words in context.

In Psalm 33:9 we read of praises to God, the Lord. In verse 9, we read:


    ט כִּי הוּא אָמַר וַיֶּהִי; הוּא-צִוָּה, וַיַּעֲמֹד.
    9 For He spoke, and it was; He commanded, and it stood.


What does this mean? What could it possibly refer to?

Hence the discussion in Shabbat 152a:

    R. Kahana said: What is meant by, 'For he decreed, and it was':32 this refers to a woman;33 'he commanded; and it did stand' — this refers to children. A Tanna taught: Though a woman be as a pitcher full of filth and her mouth be full of blood, yet all speed after her.


Fascinatingly, the footnote on 33 reads "It is God's decree that man shall desire a woman."

There are many people who have read Genesis 3:16, and have misquoted it/ misused it:


    טז אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה אָמַר, הַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה עִצְּבוֹנֵךְ וְהֵרֹנֵךְ--בְּעֶצֶב, תֵּלְדִי בָנִים; וְאֶל-אִישֵׁךְ, תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ, וְהוּא, יִמְשָׁל-בָּךְ. {ס}
    16 Unto the woman He said: 'I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy travail; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.' {S}


There have been many women who have taken great offense at this verse, and many men who have used it as proof of their power (totally ignoring, may I add, the fact that God commanded Abraham to bow down and listen to his wife in Genesis 21:12). It is extremely interesting to me, then, that we appear to have the counter to this in the Talmud. The Written Torah states that a woman's desire shall be for her husband, and the Psalm (and the explanation of it according to the Talmud) retaliate with the fact that God decreed man shall desire woman.

A Tanna teaches that a woman is a "Pitcher of filth whose mouth is full of blood, yet all speed after her." In context, this is really not intended to be an insult/ demeaning/ cruel/ hurtful. It is meant to describe the fact that man desires woman so fiercely, to the point where he neglects to think of what he is desiring- flesh whose mouth is full of blood, or if I desired to go further, flesh that one day will rot and decay in the grave, flesh that the worms will eat of. This same idea could pertain to men if reversed; one could question the fact that women lust after men- they too, are made of dust, of that which will decompose one day. However, the Talmud does not appear to find this necessary. They wonder at the strength of man's desire for woman, almost as if to say that this desire is so strong, so powerful, that even ideas that ought to disgust man do not succeed, for all "speed after her." In a curious kind of way, this is a backhanded compliment to a woman.

(Some may find it interesting to read a similar approach- though much more detailed and hence posssibly more offensive- by the seventh Dalai Lama, speaking about/from 'The Precious Garland .' When I initially searched on the concepts found in Jonah Steinberg's article, that's what popped up.)

Jonah Steinberg, as is the custom when writing a persuasive essay, chooses his sources carefully and wisely. He discusses the following quote, but only to demonstrate the way in which it has been distorted by later sources/ contemporaries who apologize for it. Look at Niddah 31b:

    It was taught: R. Meir used to say, Why did the Torah ordain that the uncleanness of menstruation should continue for seven days? Because being in constant contact with his wife31 [a husband might] develop a loathing towards her. The Torah, therefore, ordained: Let her32 be unclean for seven days33 in order that34 she shall be beloved by her husband as at the time of her first entry into the bridal chamber.


If, indeed, the Sages desired to devalue woman, why would they take this into consideration? After all, this does not seem to be being done with the man's pleasure in mind, but rather, so that the husband will not become dissatisfied with his wife through "too much of a pleasurable thing." R. Meir is explaining that the Torah desires for the woman to be "beloved by her husband as at the time of her first entry into the bridal chamber."

There are many self-help/ psychology/ marriage books that describe the way in which romance fades or at least lessens, and it is then that an enduring love is born, one at which both members of the relationship must work and contribute. One of the great classics, 'The Art of Loving' by Erich Fromm, specifically stresses this idea. The Talmud's idea in this particular section seems ahead of its time.

I do agree with the majority of Jonah Steinberg's ideas with regard to the fact that 'A Hedge of Roses' is not an accurate portrayal of the ways in which the Sages/ Chazal understood niddah.

Selective quoting, however, is used in his article. For instance, Jonah Steinberg quotes from Nedarim 20a, writing:

"Another Talmudic passage connects still another danger with menstruation and sexual transgression:

    R. Aha of the school of R. Josiah said: he who gazes at a woman eventually comes to sin, and he who looks even at a woman's heel will beget degenerate children. R. Joseph said, this applies even to one's own wife when she is a niddah.


Notions of dire peril in early rabbinism served not only to warn men away from their menstruating wives, but also to encourage fealty to the law among women..."

The aforementioned statement seems incredibly harsh. One cannot even look at one's wife's heel, and if he does so, he will beget degenerate children? That is, of course, the impact Joseph Steinberg wishes it to have. How unfair! we will cry. How strange!

That is, of course, until we realize that there is a statement that has been left out:

    "R. Simeon b. Lakish said: 'Heel' that is stated means the unclean part, which is directly opposite the heel."


That has a different connotation.

I feel that the misuse of certain words in the essay really misleads the reader. My idea is this- the Sages worked to create a set of rules that would explain the parameters of halakha (which is, of course, often mixed in with aggadah as well.) To state that the Sages felt horror, disgust or revulsion of woman is to state that the Sages were deciding rules based on their own personal emotions as opposed to logical thought. This idea is not supported by any of the quotations Jonah Steinberg brings.

Some examples:

"If a menstruant woman walks between two [men]- if it is at the beginning of her menstruation, she will cause one to die. If it is at the end of her menstruation, she will bring strife between them." (Pesachim 111a)

"For three sins a woman dies in childbirth [for neglecting the laws of niddah, hallah (the tithing of baked goods), and the kindling of [Sabbath or Festival] lights." (Mishnah: Shabbat 2:6)

The one I have already mentioned, "Though a woman be a pot of filth whose mouth is full of blood, yet all chase after her." (Shabbat 152a)

"A menstruant must not cut her fingernails, lest a husband or child accidentally step on the clippings, and as a result, develop boils and die......." (Baraita de-Niddah)

"Scripture prohibited [having intercourse with] a menstruant woman for the reason...that the Torah permitted sexual intercourse only for the purpose of having children and,....the whole child or the greater part thereof is created out of the woman's blood, as I have already mentioned, and from the blood of menstruation it is created not at all." (Nachmanides)

What I wish to demonstrate is that these quotes do not describe the Sages' attitudes of disgust, revulsion, fear and so on and so forth. What they do describe are simply what the Sages took to be fact.

Everything is written in a matter-of-fact way. "If a menstruant passes between two men, then..." or "the child is not created from menstrual blood." What we disagree with, nowadays, is that these things actually occur. What we would say, possibly, is that these are not facts, rational, pure, logical facts, ideas that everyone can take for granted. We will say that science does not support Nachmanides' points.

We will argue with the facts, with the ideas- not with the supposed emotion and feelings that allowed the Sages to propose these ideas as facts.

And yet the entire essay Jonah Steinberg writes links these facts to actual emotions. In order to come up with a way in order to keep man separate from his wife, the Sages wracked their brains and thought, "Hmm! Here's an idea! Let's talk about how awful and evil women are, how dirty they are, and how they cause men to die- that will work! That will control the men! "

There's no proof for that. No proof at all.

What there is proof for is that these ideas were accepted as fact, and that therefore the menstruant man and woman should be careful because of them. It was a fact that if a woman walked between two men at the beginning of her menstruation, she would cause one to die. It was a fact that regardless of the fact that women were "pots of filth" men would still chase after them.

If we do not agree, it is because these things do not happen in our society today. Or at least, we do not know them to happen. We do not see men dropping dead when a menstruant woman walks between them, and therefore we find the notion strange. We disagree with the idea, with what was accepted as a fact then.

This is an integral point. The adjectives Steinberg strews throughout his work about the "devaluation of women, revulsion, horror, disgust" and so on and so forth do not exist in the minds of the Sages. They are simply writing the law as best they see fit, with that which is at their disposal. If anything, these ideas of "revulsion" and so on have been thought of by us, in our politically correct world, and we are going back to rereading the Talmud through the eyes of our own world and time.

While one may disagree, or may be confused by the Talmud, may find it strange and bewildering (and I do), I think it is disingenous and misleading to say that these Sages were "out to get" women. That we know what went through their minds, that we can read their emotions today.

As for the question of Niddah, for that, I turn to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He has always been, for me, the one with the clearest answers, the ideas that make sense in a world of apologetics and confusion. One of the reasons his answers are so clear is that he admits that he does not know all of them, that he too is striving and struggling, that there are problems that confuse him as well. It is his humility that attracts me to him, that and the brilliance I find in his works.



In one of my favorite works, 'Out of the Whirlwind,' he writes:

    "I will read for you a midrash (Midrash Rabbah to Shir haShirim 7:3, "Thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies"), and I believe it speaks for itself. The midrash explains Jewish ritual law pertaining to sexuality. Judaism developed a very strange attitude towards sexual life. On the one hand, it endorsed it, completely rejecting the Aristotelian negative approach which Maimonides had somehow accepted. Sex can be a sacred performance if treated properly, if placed in a worthwhile, dignified perspective. In one's sexual life, the dignity of man is the most important factor. It determines the whole character of the sexual life, whether it is low, primitive, hypnotic and orgiastic, or dignified and sacred.

    The Halakha developed a very strange, paradoxical law pertaining to the periods of withdrawal and assosciation. But the strangest of all laws pertaining to sex is one norm which borders almost on the inconsiderate. A young man meets a young woman and falls in love, marries her, and consummates the marriage- the norm is that it is then that a period of withdrawal of almost twelve days begins.

    "It often happens that a man takes a wife when he is thirty or forty years old and after going to great expense"- expense not meant in terms of money, but it means he proposed a few times and she rejected him. He was in love and kept on insisting and finally he won out. "After going to great expense, he wants to associate with her." His heart is overflowing with love and passion. "yet, if she says to him, 'I have seen a rose red speck,' he immediately recoils. What made him retreat and keep away from her? Was there a wall of iron between them? Did a serpent bite him? Did a scorpion sting him?....It was the words of Torah, which are soft as a lily."

    The Midrash gives another example. "A dish of meat is laid before a man and he is told that some forbidden fat has fallen into it; he leaves it alone and will not take it." Hungry as he is, however stong his desire for food, he will not taste it. "Who stops him from tasting it? Did a serpent bite him?....Did a scorpion sting him?...It was the words of the Torah, which are soft as a lily..." Bride and bridegroom are young, physically strong and passionately in love with each other; both have patiently awaited this rendezvous, and they met and the bridegroom stepped backward. Like a knight, he gallantly exhibited superhuman heroism, not in a spectacular but in a quite humble fashion, in the privacy of their home, in the stillness of the night. And what happened? He defeated himself at the height of his triumphant conquest, when all he had to do was to reach out and take possession. The young man overcame himself, the conquere in his orgiastic hypnotic mood retreated, performed a movement of recoil. He displayed heroism by accepting defeat. And in this act of self-defeat one finds the real dignity of man.

    Dignity in Defeat

    If man knows how to take defeat at his own hands ni a variety of ways as the Halakha tries to teach us, then he may preserve his dignity even when defeat was not summoned by him, when he faces adversity and disaster and is dislodged from his castles and fortresses......

    [Next page]

    What I have developed is more a philosophy of the Halakha. How this philosophy could be interpeted in terms of mental health is a separate problem, one that is quite complictaed. But I believe that the trouble with modern man and his problems is what the existentialists keep on emphasizing: anxiety, angst. Man is attuned to success. Modern man is a conquerer, but he does not want to see himself defeated. This is the main trouble. Of course, when he encounters evil and the latter triumphs over him and he is defeated, he cannot "take it"; he does not understand it.

    However, if man is trained gradually, day by day, to take defeat at his own hands in small matters, in his daily routine, in his habits of eating, in his sex life, in his public life- as a matter of fact, I have developed how this directional movment is applicable to all levels- then, I believe, when faced with evil and adversity and when he finds himself in crisis, he will manage to bear his problems with dignity."

    Pages 111-115


Dignity in defeat.

This is a revolutionary concept. A child, a student hears all one's life that we have to strive for success, in every way. Success is defined by fame, by having others look up to you, by getting straight As, by raking in a profit. Success is by nature of the very world never having failed. Failure is to be frowned upon, looked down on. It is to be avoided, and if one fails, one must feel ashamed.

Not so in Judaism.

The dietary restrictions, the sexual restrictions, the restrictions all across the board describe a way in which man defeats himself. He makes the conscious choice to restrain himself, to refrain from taking whatever it is that he may have. He is the type of person who can choose.

He is, as Charlie wrote in 'the perks of being a wallflower' the "kind of person who didn't try to sleep with the girl at the party even though you could have."

"I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn't try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist."

Why? Because they are people who don't take advantage fo every opportunity. Who are confident enough in themselves and their abilities to refrain from taking pleasure whenever they wish it. The type of people who understand dignity with defeat, even though those aren't the words they would use.

This is a humble, quiet act. No one will ever know what you do in the privacy of your own home. No one will know whether or not you keep this law. Only you will know. The humble act of defeating oneself, exhibiting dignity with defeat.

I will not pretend that I understand everything about Niddah. The more I learn, the more sources I read, the more questions I have. No answer is ever totally satisfactory. There are still questions- "Why? What do they mean?" And that is okay. That is exactly as it should be.

But I am at peace with the concept of Niddah. I do not loathe the Sages; I don't see a way I could. I may disagree or be troubled by questions, but this is what religion is, myriads of questions thundering within the tempest of our minds.

I welcome the storm. I am glad of it. To dance with lightning, to shiver at the powerful burst of thunder, to alternatively cower in fear and defy the heavens- this is what my religion is. So many questions, contradictions, storming ideas. The passion for knowledge, and the thirst to know....

15 comments:

e-kvetcher said...

I don't get this:
If we do not agree, it is because these things do not happen in our society today. Or at least, we do not know them to happen. We do not see men dropping dead when a menstruant woman walks between them, and therefore we find the notion strange.
Are you saying that Chazal could not confirm through the same type of observation you are doing that these things didn't happen in their time, just like they don't happen today?

Chana said...

I figured that I really don't know what happened during their time-period. At that time there were still miracles (evidenced by the citation of fact that they don't rule by Bas Kol or moving trees, etc, or by R. Shimon bar Yochai's burning a man through the gaze of his eyes) and possibly this was one of them (the man dying.) Hence they might very well have had proof that I would not/do not have.

e-kvetcher said...

Chana states:
To state that the Sages felt horror, disgust or revulsion of woman is to state that the Sages were deciding rules based on their own personal emotions as opposed to logical thought.
I don't think it was based on personal emotions, probably prevailing societal mores within the Rabbinical stratum of society, perhaps divinely inspired, but I cannot see how you can use the words "logical thought", especially in light of my previous comment.

Also, this attitude is not only towards women but Samaritans, gentiles, etc.

Finally, this attitude has been preserved faithfully into modernity.
See Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 3:8

e-kvetcher said...

Yes, the Talmud speaks of many miracles, and the Bavli and the Midrashim speak extensively of demonology and magic...

I don't think I want to get into this quagmire since I get plenty of it at GH.

Chana said...

:) Yes, the eternal debate between magic and rationalism.

I appreciate your comments/ ideas, e-kvetcher; I learn from them (as from all commentators) so thanks all the same.

e-kvetcher said...

Keep on truckin ;)

I didn't mean to come off sounding ticked, I just don't think that taking the conversation in this direction will strengthen anyone's emunah.

Eshet Chayil said...

I've actually gotten into this conversation elsewhere, so I'll sit back and watch how this unfolds. Interesting veiw...

FrumSingleGuy said...

Chana,
I recently posted something on my blog that seems to speak to your point. I haven't read the article you mention in your post yet but I have a theory as to why contemporary Rabbis have this notion of translating Chazal's teachings about women in a negative and discriminatory way.

Simply- Ta'aveh. Let me explain as I know some people are going to misunderstand- Since contemporary society is in the toilets with regard to morality, there are many "restrictions" and "safeguards" that the frum world creates that are nonsense and ludicrous. I think that the pervasive attitude of many yeshiva people about the roles of women and the concepts of Chazal about women are negative. It is easier to control sexual impulses if women are degraded. In the yeshiva world especially, none of the men (who are at the forefront of learning) are going to try and understand Chazal's writtings about women in a positive way, because they understand the concept of "kol kevodah bas melech penima" as being a concept that exists in order to shield men from Taaveh. It is why many Beis Yaakov girls feel that the Halachos of Tznius are solely so that "bochurim should think about bad things". If so the perspective of men is that halachos regarding women have to do with shileding men from desire. And so women's roles become how they can be in service to men. Is this clear?

I agree with your last few paragraphs regarding religion... Eloquently said.

Masmida said...

Very well done.

I think a useful way to think about the difference between us and Chazal and the differences between us is the concept of yiridat ha'dorot.

We know that we live on objectively smaller spiritual scale than the Nevi'im, it is arguable that is true of chazal.

Living on a smaller spiritual scale means that we have less access to the interaction between this world and the 'there' world of Hashem and all the intermdiates in between.

As we have less access, we are less affected by and have less ability to affect that world. Since the two are inextricably linked, triggering things in that world also creates results here.

So at the time of chazal, walking throught this world also meant interacting with the next world, where the rules are very different.

So that all these statemnet became relevant but totally out our range of functioning.

similar to trying to undserstand reasons for chokim

again, very well done.

AMSHINOVER said...

misquoting and taking things out of text has always been the hallmark of the ...i don't even know how to refer to them.
i can not believe your wrote this post this fast so well.kudos gut shabbus

e-kvetcher said...

The dietary restrictions, the sexual restrictions, the restrictions all across the board describe a way in which man defeats himself. He makes the conscious choice to restrain himself, to refrain from taking whatever it is that he may have. He is the type of person who can choose.

What you are really describing here is some type of limited ascetic philosophy. This is why the link to the Dalai Lama fits in as well. He wasn't so much attacking women as negating the pleasures of the world.

Amshinover:
misquoting and taking things out of text has always been the hallmark of the...
Selective presentation of information to advance your position is unfortunately our legacy of Greek Wisdom, but it is practiced by pretty much everyone in our society, from trial lawyers to advertisers to reconcilers of Science and Religion.

Chana said...

Ideally, there should be some way to persuade the reader of the truth of your position, but also to use all the ideas at one's disposal...

The reason I shy away from using the term 'asceticism' is because it has connotatoins of people sleeping on beds of nails or rolling in the snow (there's a great Ba'al Shem Tov story about a man who told the Ba'al Shem he was trying to be a tzadkik and rolled in the snow, hurt his flesh, etc. The Ba'al Shem Tov answered something along the lines of, "A horse too can roll in the snow, but a horse is still a horse...") and so on and so forth, whereas R' Soloveitchik defines this idea as a dignified approach to life, one which will train us to accept defeat even when it is not voluntary (training vs. a nullification of pleasure.)

Semgirl said...

Just wanted to express my gratitude for post such an exceptionally well written article. I just printed it out. You made my Shabbos.

Hope to comment on it at length next week..

Shabbat Shalom Chana

Irina Tsukerman said...

Could it be that the words about men dropping dead, etc. were a metaphor? That they weren't supposed to be taken literally?

David_on_the_Lake said...

Wow. Are you sure you're only 17?
That was an exceptional piece.

One point...If one is not familiar with the way the Sages express Aggada it's silly to just look at what they have to say about Niddah..
Aggadah has to be learnt and interpreted. It is full of exaggerations and expressions foreign to our 21th Century ears.