A Clear Backpack Filled With Tampons
In the Torah portion Tazria, God instructs Moses about the purification rituals for mothers following childbirth. God then describes to Moses and Aaron the procedures for identifying and responding to those infected with leprosy. In Metzora, God describes the purification ritual for people and homes afflicted with skin diseases; God also instructs Moses and Aaron regarding the laws of the emission of bodily fluids.
It’s been an intense week. This d’var Torah could, certainly, benefit from some editing. But sometimes, we have what we have. This week, this is what I have.
It wasn’t warm. It was August, sure, but it was also Minnesota, and the water was, as my wife says, refreshing. Our friends stood chest deep in the lake holding up lengths of colorful fabric to create an area of privacy for us. We each ducked inside the circle with a laminated blessing card and . . . immersed.
In the first four years of our relationship, we had spent all but the first two-and-a-half months being primary caregiver and patient. We had talked health care directives and funerals years before we talked about a wedding. In the journey to celebrating our marriage, we were very intentional about framing our marriage as equal loving partners. For us, mikveh was an important ritual transition into a new way of being in life together.
Immersing in the mikveh, or ritual bath, prior to a wedding quietly marks the transition from being single to being married. It can also create a space for contemplation at the center of the public rituals of wedding and celebration. Long-standing Jewish practice has been that a bride visits a mikveh within four days of her wedding, and seven days after the end of menstruation. The timing is due to the laws of niddah, which includes that couples do not have sex during and immediately after a menstrual period, and engage again sexually only after the woman immerses in the mikveh.
Progressive mikve’ot,however, such as Mayyim Hayyim, (a reimagined and radically inclusive mikveh in Boston) invite people to immerse for reasons from an upcoming wedding or a life transition, to marking a moment of healing during cancer treatment. When immersing before a wedding, some couples choose to immerse privately and come to a mikveh alone, and others choose to invite a friend or family member, or even invite guests to celebrate with songs, poems, blessings, food, and drink.
Interesting as that all may be, what does it have to do with this week’s parshiot?
We have two this week, Tazria and Metzora.
Tazria, meaning “she conceives” and metzora meaning “diseased” are the first distinctive words in each of this pair of parshiot, both of which are about purification rituals – purification related to childbirth, menstruation, skin disease, and seminal emission. What could these experiences possibly have in common?
"When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days . . . she shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing" (Lev. 12:2-4)
I love these parshiot. If we can hold onto understanding that what the Torah deems tamei – often translated as unclean – or tahor – often translated as clean – is not actually attached to cleanliness, and that impure and pure are only slightly better translations, you might come to love them, too. These Hebrew words are ritual terms, meant to designate those in a physical and spiritual state unable to enter the Mishkan. (The Tabernacle, and in later times, the Temple. )
I can understand why for many of us, coming up against those words is immediately alienating. How often have we heard less than positive framing for the physical experiences of bodies? When was the last time we heard something positive about menstruation? How often in our growing up did we hear about the expected perfection of the female form in particular? In 1988 theologian Elizabeth Dodson Gray wrote, “Women’s bodies may be the hardest place for women to find sacredness.” (Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience, p. 197) That sentence hurts my heart. Does it still ring true?
I think it might.
Earlier this month, Cameron Kasky , teen activist and Parkland shooting survivor, filled his (mandatory since the shooting) clear backpack with tampons and tweeted about it in support of his peers who would now have their preferred period products in public view. As Teen Vogue reported, “while carrying tampons in his backpack and tweeting about it might seem small or silly, it’s actually helping to further an important conversation. Periods and menstrual products are already so stigmatized not just in America, but around the world. And many people who experience periods feel shame and embarrassment about bleeding and having to carry pads, tampons, and other products.” The article goes on to applaud Cameron for being a fantastic ally by talking about periods, being open to a healthy conversation online, and offering support to people who need them. Amen.
For many people, these parshiotseem to just layer on the negative. A woman who is menstruating, a woman after birth – impure? Unclean? No thank you.
Okay, but hold on.
As Rabbi Elyse Goldstein teaches, the mixed messages of fear and power, contact and avoidance, dominates allof the Torah’s passages around blood.
Avoided in eating and sex, blood is the same substance that atones for the community in the sacrificial system. It binds the individual to the Israelite covenant through circumcision. Blood endangers, but it also sustains. It is plague, and it is deliverance. Blood is both birth and decay. It is impurity, and purity.
She questions why it is that Judaism, which has a blessing for eliminating waste from the body/going to the bathroom doesn’t have a blessing for the coming and going of menstruation. More than thirty years ago, filling the vacuum for the liturgy-writing rabbis who lived in a world where modesty was central and women’s bodies a mystery, Rabbi Goldstein crafted a blessing to say each month when she gets her period adapted from an existing morning prayer, “Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, she’asani ishah: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has made me a woman.” Her intent is affirming holiness and sanctity within the context of menstruation.
Cancer treatment ushered me into early menopause, but from what I remember the physical pain and discomfort and emotional upheaval of menstruating is often no picnic. Add to that a medical condition like endometriosis and for many the idea that getting one’s period could be a sacred experience may seem far fetched. I hear you.
That said, we could reject the notion of “unclean” and embrace the intensity of these weeks. With our blood, life and death pulses through our bodies. There is also a connection between menstruation and covenant. When Zechariah speaks to daughter Jerusalem, the language of “your covenant of blood” is addressed to the “daughter” – a female. There is a potential parallel, then, with circumcision.
I think it’s provocative that the response to the tension of birth and blood is “living” water. A mikvehis generally a tank of rainwater connected to a small pool (heated and treated), much like a small swimming pool. Of course, there are natural bodies of water that can also serve as mikve’ot such as an ocean or lake. There are rules, of course, this is Judaism. And blessings. From my perspective, Jews have been Jews longer than there have been spa-like heated mikehpools, and there is something pretty fabulous about immersing in a lake.
It’s almost Shabbat, and my time for crafting a response to these parshiot is quickly coming to an end. I must at least try to quickly explain what it is I love about them. For me, these parshiotare our Torah carrying a clear backpack filled with tampons. These chapters and verses are so real. Birth can be beautiful, and it’s also super messy and bloody. And hard. And not all babies survive. Our bodies are amazing, incredibly resilient . . . and so very fragile . . . and vulnerable. We get diseases, and we don’t always know where they came from. Sometimes, those diseases are also messy. We are full of fluids, and blood, and waste we are in the process of eliminating. This is life. And even when it does so in ways that are uncomfortable, our tradition pays attention to the real stuff of life and to the reality of what it means to live in a body.
I love that.