There is a delicate balance between honoring a sacred need for privacy and shaming women for having bodies.
Nidah is the traditional Jewish practice of not touching a woman when she is menstruating, because during that time, her body is considered “impure.”
Radical Menstruation is the attitude–and practices associated with said attitude–that menstruation is not dirty or shameful.
(I know, it’s not actually that radical. But in our society, talking about menstruation is still very taboo. People are rude and squeamish, and corporations make a lot of money from women’s shame. It takes courage to say “I have a uterus, and that’s not a bad thing.” )
The first time I heard about nidah, it sounded horribly sexist and antiquated. I’m a functioning adult who can bring life into the world, and rather than celebrating that fact, my religion calls me “impure” and ostracizes me for a week every month? F that noise.
But the more I thought about my own feelings during my period, the more separating myself from mainstream society made sense to me. When I’m bleeding and when I have cramps, I don’t want to be around anyone who might say “eew.” I don’t even want to be around people who say, “why don’t you just take a tylenol?”
I want to be around either people who menstruate or people who care deeply about loved ones who menstruate. I want to be able to say, “my uterus hurts!” and have people nod sympathetically and maybe hand me a cup of tea. I want to be around people who understand completely; I don’t want to be around people who just tell me to shut up, take a pill, and go about my regular business. My body feels different that week, and it feels wrong to not acknowledge that fact. I think parts of the “nidah” concept are good, because they acknowledge menstruation as a fact of life (as opposed to just pretending it shouldn’t happen).
The parts of nidah that I’m not okay with are two-fold. I’m not okay with the word “impure,” and I’m not okay with someone else making the choice to be distant from a menstruating person.
In my mind, those problems are easily solved. I don’t think halacha (Jewish laws) were written by the hand of Gd; I think they were written by people, who are fallible. If some rabbi a long time ago used the word “impure” when writing things down, he was wrong. The word is not “impure.” The word is “sacred.” When I’m menstruating, I’m sacred. So maybe I don’t want the world to touch me during that time.
And regarding other people deciding whether or not I’m okay to touch during that week–it should be my choice to reveal whether or not I’m menstruating. The boundaries between my body and the rest of the world should be enforced by me, not others. If I want to suck it up and pretend nothing is different that week, that should be my choice to make. On the other hand, if I prefer to participate in situations differently in deference to my body’s needs, I should be allowed to do that without shame.
Luckily, I have been able to make choices for myself regarding menstruation practices that have felt healthy, respectful, and appropriate. When I’m around good friends and my uterus hurts, I say so. When I’m around people who wouldn’t understand, I quietly excuse myself. (I have no desire to explain radical menstruation while distracted by pain. If people ask bluntly, I explain quickly and plainly. “I just started my period,” makes for an interesting exit to dinner parties.)
One interesting caveat to my personal practice as a menstruating Jewish person is that when I’m asked to do an aliyah and bless the Torah on the first and most painful day of my cycle, I usually refuse. I like that the offer is made, but I usually feel a little quieter on that day–definitely not up to chanting Hebrew in front of a bunch of people.
So these are my practices, and this is my balance. Here, three weeks before my wedding, I stand swaying between Jewish tradition and feminist tradition, balancing pride with privacy, honoring what’s sacred, and insisting upon respect.
Lag b blog, day 17