You may have encountered women and men who think that women can’t touch the Torah when they are menstruating. Those women and men are not aware that the torah is not m’kabel tum’ah, it is not susceptible to impurity. It makes sense, however, that this might be less well-known, because in times past, the word “menstruation” may have rarely been heard in synagogues.
The book of Vayikra and this parsha are notable for the straightforward, non-judgmental approach, unlike other places in Tanach. The prophets critique the Jewish people, comparing them and their abominable sins to a menstruant woman. And this pejorative way of speaking about menstruation is not a thing of the past.
In my experience teaching high school, a way to be dismissive of a girl or a female teacher was to say, “She has PMS” or “it’s that time of the month.” Ambivalence about menstruation may be ancient, but it maintains a presence today.
Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Yeshivat Hadar notes an irony of our age that gets in the way of restoring menstruation to something neutral, let alone miraculous. Tucker points out that compared to our ancestors’ world, menstruation is now more private that it has ever been. He writes: “Indoor plumbing and pharmacy shelves full of feminine hygiene products allow for unprecedented concealment of menstruation, such that it can be constructed as something entirely personal.”
As a result, in parts of the world where there is access to those products, the privatization of menstruation means out of sight, out of mind, out of conversation. Privacy, which is a good thing, contributes to silence around a normal human bodily process, and helps it to become something not discussed, or worse, something that can be leveraged for disparaging women and girls.
Even more problematic, according to Jenna Weiss-Wolfe of New York University, one in 10 girls in Africa misses school for the duration of her period each month. The numbers are much lower in the United States, but it happens here as well. The unavailability or cost (including tax) of feminine hygiene products causes girls to miss school, when an education may be their only chance of escaping poverty or other kinds of deprivation.
There are efforts to collect these products and send them overseas, and there are organizations that help to provide them to public schools here. But there are also ways of rethinking and talking about menstruation from a Jewish perspective that can help move us forward.
Rabbi Tucker quotes one of the most surprising ideas by a medieval commentator, R. Yosef Bekhor Shor of Orléans. The Bekhor Shor was puzzled about women’s lack of circumcision. If women are also Jews, how can they not have a physical sign of the covenant on their bodies, just as men do? Commenting on Bereishit 17:11, the Bekhor Shor writes: “The menstrual blood that women must monitor … functions for them as covenantal blood [that is parallel to the male mitzvah of circumcision]… ”
The idea of menstrual blood as covenantal blood is a shift in approach. In addition to mikvah, it is another way of thinking about this wondrous human process within the realm of the holy.
It is the season of redemption, with the arrival of the month of Nissan. We often ask ourselves: What will a redeemed world look like? I think that one small step toward redemption will be when discussion of menstruation generates reverence and wonder and is never used for disparagement or shame. So may it be. JN
Rabbi Elana Kanter is co-rabbi of the New Shul in Scottsdale.