We touch today on the thorny issue of how a married couple may relate to each other whilst the woman is menstruating.
Let us accept that they may not engage in sexual intercourse. I’m sure there is a fascinating history to this prohibition, which we’ll explore at some point, but let’s leave it for now.
What we are explicitly exploring on the daf is whether or not they may sleep together in the same bed. We seem to rule out the possibility that they may do this in the nude, for we only even ask about the case where they are both wearing pyjamas.
As a first observation, I cannot but help but be struck by the Gemara’s initial response to this question:
Chicken may be placed on a table with cheese and we are not concerned they will be eaten together.
Never mind what we are trying to learn from this comparison, I just feel that it sounds somewhat absurd as an opening gambit in this discussion. We do not begin by asking about the meaning of physical intimacy in married life, about the importance of a man and woman maintaining a strong emotional connection at this difficult time of the month.
There is no attempt to consider the human cost of this sort of legislation, to query whether it is indeed appropriate to be legislating here at all. A response in this vein might have been:
‘They may not have intercourse, that much is clear. The ways in which they take responsibility for this matter is their business.’
We touched recently on the dangers of preventative legislation, of g’zeirot, perhaps here too that lesson might have been applied.
I understand that these observations may sound weak, that it might sound as if I have no familiarity or respect for what might be called ‘Talmudic Process’.
But I do have that familiarity, if anything perhaps I am too familiar with it, and I could easily have followed this legal discussion without noting the absence of any psychological or emotional meditations.
So I mention it, because for those of us engaged in the project of trying to bring out what is profound and insightful in the halakha, who wish to show that it is often a profound merging of lofty spiritual concern and concrete practical detail, it is also important to note where it may possibly be falling short of that mark, where it might be missing something important. This is the role of the Oral Law, to ensure that textual record never drowns out the voices of humanity in the culture, that it always finds a way to accommodate worthy and progressive criticism.
Moving into the discussion itself, I was pleased to see that the Gemara made a valiant attempt to defend the ‘pyjama rights’ of the married couple, to assume that their intelligence and awareness would serve to defuse the ‘danger’ of the situation.
In the end however, it seems to come down on the side of prevention, based not on legal or psychological precedent, but on a strange reading of a verse from Ezekiel (18:6) which comes into the discussion out of nowhere. The verse, which seems to be part of a general ‘call to piety’ on Ezekiel’s part, mentions a married woman just before mentioning a menstruating woman. And we are then offered this not terribly compelling piece of logic:
Just as the ‘wife of his neighbour’, they may not sleep together in their pyjamas, so too when his wife is menstruating, they may not sleep together in their pyjamas.
The flow of the argument doesn’t seem to work that well, we seem to move from a spirit of permission to a spirit of prohibition quite suddenly, too abruptly.
What I also notice is that we begin the discussion by asking the question of the wife – ‘is she allowed to sleep with her husband under these circumstances?’ There is something of concern for her, a glimmer of awareness that she might be going through a difficult period.
By the end, as we arrive at our morally driven conclusion, the question has become about the husband, what is the right thing to do for his purity. The wife of his neighbour and his own menstruating wife become mere objects in the discussion, things to be avoided, and we are primarily concerned about not compromising his spiritual state.
It is this focus on the man that I don’t like, this idea that we view him as a being challenged by marriage, by his menstruating wife, tempted by her, needing to tie himself to the mast like Odysseus against the sirens.
Marriage works when it is a joint venture, when two people are able to be consistently and deeply mindful of each other, when they are properly aware of the reality of each other’s existence. One source of problems is when separation and distance set in, when the other is viewed as the cause of marital or personal difficulty.
This move will always be the easy one: the blaming of the other, the assumption that we know what they think and want, the assertion that our own better nature would like to act properly, that we are being forced by the other to compromise and sell ourselves short.
It’s an easy narrative to feed ourselves, it vindicates our own purity. But it destroys the marriage, the possibility of togetherness, of the joint venture, of the core partnership which might make life richer.
And this is where moralism becomes narcissism, or vice versa. The move to separate ourselves, to retreat to our own world of inner purity, to extricate ourselves from our partner, our family, our friends, our community, in the name of some higher, more moral, calling.
I’m not saying it’s never necessary to do this, sometimes it is. But it’s a risky move, a move we should probably always treat suspiciously, a move that should perhaps mostly be a temporary one.
For if a person cannot live in any of these relationships, if they are too pure for their world, then what is the content and meaning of their morality, in what sense have they sanctified their engagement with the world?
Put more clinically, we cannot be forever detaching, dissociating and withdrawing. That is not the path to health, the direction in which a genuine ethic should be leading us.
This shift from ‘her’ or ‘them’ to ‘him’ can also be seen in Maimonides codification of this ruling. It is to be found in the Book of Holiness, ‘Sefer Kedusha’, in the subsection on ‘the laws of forbidden relations’.
The matter is not about love, relationship, intimacy. It is not about dialogue and togetherness. It is about the forbidden, about personal holiness, about what a man may or may not do in his quest for individual salvation. (By contrast, Maimonides’ Book of Love is concerned with Torah, with prayer, with God.)
The Gemara then presents two potentially dissenting voices, Rabbi Pedat and Ulla.
The case of Ulla is particularly interesting, we are told that:
When he would come from the house of study would kiss his sisters on their breasts.
The Gemara is a bit flummoxed by this act of intimacy, by the love for his sisters and his unashamed expression of it. It claims he is contradicting himself, for in another place he proscribes any acts that might bring a forbidden relationship closer to realisation.
I’m not sure there really is a contradiction, I think there is something enlightening here. In certain circumstances, perhaps genuinely innocent ones, a great deal of physical contact may go on without anything illicit being stirred or brought to life.
In other circumstances, where something forbidden is in the air, is on one’s mind, the subtlest look or gesture can serve to bring the act closer, a few carefully chosen words may easily add fuel to the fire of the fantasy.
The case of Ulla shows us that it is hard to legislate in this arena. What might in one time and place be completely commonplace and harmless might in other circumstances be provocative and inflammatory in the extreme.
I find this whole area very tricky, on the one hand the Rabbis are quite Freudian in their approach: ‘everything is about sex, don’t deceive yourself’. On the other hand, they don’t seem to see the problematic side of treating sexuality as taboo, of foisting it onto the woman, of making it about individual holiness, rather than about related intimacy.
So, if I’m honest, I think there are big costs to their approach, there are large areas of these matters that need reconsidering, perhaps even just expressing differently, being spoken about more delicately.
But I also get that the sublimation being advocated here, for there can be no doubt that this is what motivates the disavowal of sexuality, is a potentially significant contributor to the energy underpinning the entirety of Rabbinic culture. And it’s hard to imagine in any straightforward terms what an alternative culture would look like, what the effects would be on religious intensity and practice, what other knock on effects might follow.
It’s definitely easier to stick to the established law, to claim that the weight of tradition and history make it unimpeachable. But I would never say that in a therapeutic setting, so why would I say it in an honest assessment of the culture, why would I think that the Divine is not capable of containing and absorbing my unsettling questions?
It’s weakness of faith that tries to quash questioning, and I don’t really get how that became admirable.
We just need to keep thinking about this stuff, to keep reading and debating and figuring out how it works in real life.
In case the feeling lingers that I’ve been too squeamish, that really there’s nothing in this Talmudic discussion that’s problematic or disturbing, let’s look at the story it ends with:
It once happened that a certain scholar who had studied much Bible and Mishna and had served many scholars died in middle age. His wife took his tefillin and carried them about in the synagogues and schoolhouses and complained to them: ‘ It is written in the Torah, for that is thy life, and the length of thy days: my husband, who read Bible, learned Mishna, and served many scholars , why did he die in middle age?’ No man could answer her.
On one occasion I [Elijah the prophet] was a guest at her house, and she related the whole story to me. Said I to her, ‘My daughter! how was he to thee in thy days of menstruation?’ ‘God forbid!’ she rejoined; ‘he did not touch me even with his little finger.’ ‘And how was he to thee in thy days of white garments [after the cessation of menstrual blood]? ‘He ate with me, drank with me and slept with me in bodily contact, and it did not occur to him to do other [engage in sexual relations].’
Said I to her, ‘Blessed be the Omnipresent for slaying him, for he did not show adequate respect to the Torah!’
Really? Is this what we think of God, that he spends his time killing people on account of their failing to keep up with the latest Rabbinic stringency, no matter how pure and far from genuine sin they might be? Is this our theodicy, that wherever tragedy strikes there must be someone who valued marital relationship more than Rabbinic anxiety?
I prefer the silence of the Rabbis to the presumptions of Elijah the prophet. Maybe they had suspicions about his sensual nature, but they were at least embarrassed enough not to suggest that this was the cause of his death. I cannot begin to think of how the poor wife must have felt after Elijah berated her like this, making her share in the culpability for her husband’s death: ‘If you hadn’t tempted him, forced him to lie with you inappropriately, demanded warmth and intimacy from him, then he’d still be here today.’
It’s a sick and heartless comment, but it is one that we risk repeating if we are not willing to approach these matters with sensitivity, with openness, with an awareness of their complexity.
In questions of sexuality we are indeed dealing with the most powerful currents in our nature, but we are foolish if we think that we can easily opt for the safe approach, if we think that blanket prohibitions – no pun intended – will be either effective or without cost.
To keep love alive, to allow the unexpected to grow in the soil of our relationships; these are the challenges we must sometimes defend. May we be granted the wisdom and integrity to have insight in these matters, and may we retain the humility to see where silence might sometimes be our best response.