The Escape From the Red Tent
In the mind of the modern person, one of the most problematic areas presented by Jewish law is the law of niddah, the requirement that Jewish women immerse themselves in a mikveh at the conclusion of their menstrual cycle in order to re-attain a state of purity.
According to Jewish law, menstrual bleeding, a normal part of every healthy female's life cycle renders women tamey, or "spiritually impure." (For a detailed explanation of the concepts of tamey and tohar, spiritual purity and impurity, see Mayanot, Parshat Shmini.) As if this were not enough, adding insult to injury, whoever the niddah touches somehow also becomes infected; such a person becomes tamey, or spiritually impure as well; physical relations with a niddah are therefore strictly out of bounds.
THE URGENCY OF THE NEED TO COMPREHEND
In our time, when so many Jews are searching for the way back to their roots, the need to come to grips with the rational roots of the law of niddah is especially urgent; it is not a rabbinic law; its basic features are clearly delineated in the text of our Torah portion. The niddah laws cannot be dismissed as the invention of chauvinistic rabbis, making them especially problematic in the modern context. Even someone who is not yet ready to accept Torah observance in its entirety, and wants to begin his or her return to Judaism by accepting the Divine origin of the Written Torah as an exploratory first step has to face the problem presented by the niddah laws. He or she must confront the fact that God, who created women with a built in menstrual cycle, nevertheless considers them spiritually unclean until they immerse their bodies in the mikveh.
Since this smells like a projection of the most severely politically incorrect form of sexism to the modern mind, it confronts the secular Jew of today exploring his or her Jewish roots with a difficult ideological obstacle at the very outset of his journey of discovery. No one could possibly become seriously interested in a chauvinistic religion!
In this essay, let us approach the problem by turning it on its head and exploring where this leads us. Let's start from the assumption, as we always must, that God exists, that the Torah is true, and that God gave it to us as His instructions for proper living. If we accept these propositions as true even for the sake of argument it is self-evident that the attribution of these laws, which come from God, to sexism or chauvinism is absurd. God, being incorporeal, is neither male nor female in the human sense. He has absolutely no reason to favor men over women. So, beginning with a fresh slate, abandoning any a priori assumptions, how do we begin to rationally understand the niddah laws?
STARTING POINT: HEAVEN AND EARTH
The very first verse in the Torah reads:
"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1:1)
In Hebrew, the word for heavens is shamayim, and the word for earth is aretz. These are both very peculiar words to describe the phenomena they are designated to describe.
The root of the word aretz is ratz, a word that means literally "to run." Thus, the earth, the aretz, is apparently running somewhere. Shamayim is a composite word - sham mayim - literally meaning, "the place where the water is", or - esh umayim - meaning a mixture of water and fire (see Rashi, Ibid.)
If we put these ideas together conceptually, the Torah is telling us at the outset that the earth runs to the heavens because they are the source of water and energy. Without water and energy, the earth is incapable of producing life.
Thus the very first verse in Genesis introduces the idea that the universe is a composite of two things, the heavens, shamayim, the supplier of the energy, and the earth, aretz, the seeker of input and producer of life.
The Hebrew language delivers a second thought provoking lesson concerning the interaction of life processes. The human character trait associated with giving and therefore symbolically representing the idea of 'shomayim' is called chesed, "benevolence." The trait associated with receiving, and thus representing 'aretz' is called gevurah, or "strength". In stark contrast to what one might think, the 'holy tongue' considers the receiver more powerful than the giver. The aretz holds the real power.
A little thought suffices to reveal the wisdom behind this assessment. The act of giving is an outpouring of energy. It requires no restraint. On the other hand, the faithful recipient must remain passively expectant, patiently awaiting the input of the donor, without becoming fidgety or distracted. The twin possibilities of losing patience and pursuing alternative donors, or better yet, avoiding the problem altogether by simply doing without the input, loom large. Why produce new life altogether? Who needs the aggravation? Waiting patiently for the right input to arrive requires the exercise of restraint and self-control, qualities that are attributes of force and strength.
MALE AND FEMALE
Armed with this information, we are better equipped to comprehend the Torah concept of male and female and the bond that exists between the two. Once again we shall consult the genius of the Hebrew language.
The male is called zachor in Hebrew, a word that has the same numerical value as the word beracha, meaning blessing. [Both words add up to 227.] The male is cast in the donor role. He provides the seed of life, also called chesed, and pours it into the female, called the nekeivah in Hebrew - a word that literally means "opening" - the recipient. She takes the chesed and transforms it into life.
In a curious twist, the word zachor in Hebrew also means 'to remember.' The role of the male in the production of life is only a memory; the actual appearance of life is totally associated with the female. There is a long gestation period between the union and the birth; by the time a child is born, the role of the father is only a memory.
The union between male and female is referred to as da'at, literally "knowledge." As in:
"Adam knew his wife Eve." (Genesis 4:1)
In Jewish thought da'at stands for a particular type of knowledge: the wisdom to combine chesed and gevurah in proper proportions. The principle behind this concept is obvious. The combination of chesed and gevurah produces life but only with the help of careful management and planning. Life is an explosive outburst of creative energy, and energy that is not carefully organized and controlled simply wreaks havoc. The combination of the forces of giver and receiver requires the understanding and knowledge to balance the extremes perfectly and make the union productive.
We have only to remind ourselves about the existence of hydrogen bombs to clearly see this. As a destructive force, we can exploit the explosive energy contained in atoms by building bombs that can be encased in a simple shell that is roughly the size of a suitcase. To harness this same energy in a constructive controlled way, we have to build nuclear reactors, large structures that occupy acres of territory and are equipped with masses of complex machinery and staffed with hundreds of technicians. The control of explosive energy requires a great deal of knowledge, planning and organization.
HARNESSING THE POWER OF THE MALE-FEMALE BOND
The male-female bond is the greatest potential energy source in the universe. Each new human being that it produces has the potential to change the world entirely.
Without new knowledge the world would be static. All progress and growth, including progress and growth in a purely physical sense, is an outgrowth of new knowledge and understanding - both of which are spiritual forces. The world feeds many more people than it could a hundred years ago without having become any larger or richer in natural resources. The difference in potential is due to new knowledge and technology, both products of the human spirit. The main significance of combining chesed and gevurah in the proper proportions is the production of a fresh human spirit. The da'at or knowledge of doing this properly generates all the knowledge in the world. The new body is merely the envelope in which this new potential is contained.
Spiritual births are products of spiritual unions. The most significant aspect of the union between males and females is spiritual, not physical. To bring a new soul down from heaven capable of "watering the earth" and supplying the world with the fresh energy of new knowledge, the human couple must be focused on their spiritual union rather than merely physical experience.
The Ohr Hachaim Hakodash makes this point at the beginning of our Parsha through the lives of Abraham and Sarah:
"Abram took his wife Sarai and Lot, his brother's son, and all their wealth that they had amassed, and the souls they made in Haran and they set out to go to the land of Canaan." (Genesis 12:5)
'The souls they made in Haran'; although at this point in their lives Abraham and Sarah were still childless, their union was not without issue. Whenever they "knew" each other through their many barren years, they brought souls down from heaven to earth. When they were brought down, these souls still lacked corresponding physical envelopes and were not yet able to water the earth. Nevertheless, they were already part of the spiritual Jewish family; when Abraham and Sarah left Haran they went along with them. Abraham and Sarah, being spiritual giants themselves, were able to persuade very lofty souls to leave heaven; the envelopes they needed as packaging could be supplied by people of smaller stature in due time.
But there is a deeper aspect to this. The capacity of the spiritual union between males and females to produce new human souls arises from the fact that the male-female bond is the true repository of the Shechina, the manifestation of the Presence of God on earth.
In Hebrew, a man is an ish, while a woman is an ishah. His name contains the letter yud, hers the letter hey; in all else they are identical. Between them they contain yud heh, the name of God. Subtracting these letters from both leaves esh, or fire; to harness the human fire so that it burns with a holy flame you need to insert God's Name into the male-female bond.
In light of the realization that the male-female union is the spiritual crux of all existence, it is not surprising to discover that the shape of male and female life should be shaped around it.
The male, the repository of chesed, representing the heavens in the first verse quoted above, is expected to spend his active spiritual life clinging to the heavens. To do so, he has to spend his life immersed in the study of Torah and the observance of the commandments, even those that must be performed at specific times. He must develop enormous self-discipline to do this properly, and this, in turn, requires perfecting the character trait of gevurah.
Divine wisdom decided that the life of the male, the repository of chesed should center on the acquisition and perfection of gevurah. Another word for male in Hebrew is gever. The negative trait of aggression, the outward expression of this character trait, is associated primarily with males.
The female, who is the recipient, and represents the 'earth' of the first verse is exactly the reverse. Although in her essence she represents the spiritual force of gevurah as explained above, her life is dedicated to the perfection of the trait of chesed. She is the primary caregiver and nurturer in everyday life. She is exempt from the duty of Torah study or the performance of time-specific Mitzvoth so that she can focus on meeting the needs of others. The chief distinction of the Jewish woman throughout history has been her dedication to chesed.
Through the spiritual activities imposed on them by the Torah, both male and female become a perfect blend of chesed and gevurah in their individual selves, and thus become capable of perfect union as a couple.
GIVER OF LIFE
"Adam called his wife's name Eve, because she had become the mother of all the living." (Genesis 3:20)
Rashi explains that the name Eve, Chava in Hebrew, is a noun derived from the word chaya, meaning "to give life," a verb; in turning the verb into the noun the yud becomes transformed into a vav. (As we pointed out earlier, the name of God yud hey, emerges from combining the Hebrew words for man and woman. By implication the yud is also present in the female; she thus contains God's name entirely.)
We are finally ready to return to the laws of niddah.
Life appears in the world in visible form when a baby is born; it appears through the woman. Because she is the gateway to life, it is also through her that life departs.
Man's first confrontation with the evil inclination, the serpent, was through Chava. It was she who initiated the first sin - eating from The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil - that ushered death into the world. The Ohr Hachaim points out that this association with the serpent is also hinted to in the name Chava. One of the names of snake in Hebrew is chivya, which is spelled almost identically with Chava.
The waxing and waning of the tides of life manifest themselves most powerfully in the being of the woman, because women are the receptacles of life. The menstrual cycle, which is the expression of women's ability to give life, the essence of 'Chava-ness', if you will, oscillates between life and death. It delivers the eggs that are the receptacles in which new life is formed, and it flushes them out of the reproductive system when they are no longer suitable for this purpose.
Death and tamey are synonymous. The Satan, the evil inclination, and the Angel of Seath are all one and the same person (Talmud, Baba Batra, 16a). Life is pure Divine energy. As we explained in the essay on Shmini at length, the anti-force in the universe draws all of its energy requirements from human beings who are attached to holiness. When the tamey draws energy a part of the holiness necessarily dies. Tamey is a phenomenon of the departure of life wherever you encounter it.
As Jewish women serve are the primary recipients of the input of new life, the negative forces in the universe are focused far more on attaching themselves to women than men. The death of sperm renders a person tamey only until sundown, whereas coming into contact with the death of the human egg renders a person tamey for seven full days. The snake, the symbolic representative of the negative force in the universe that is impenetrable to Divine light and therefore the source of tamey, was initially interested in Chava the archetype female, not Adam the archetype male.
Jewish souls, the embodiment of the input of fresh spiritual force into the universe, enter the world through the mother according to Jewish law. The non-Jewish mother gives birth to a non-Jewish child even when the father is a Jew. The father is only a memory at birth. He does not have the power to force the entry of a new Jewish soul into this largely tamey physical universe. On the other hand, the Jewish mother always gives birth to a Jewish soul, no matter who the father of her child may be. She is the true repository of gevurah, spiritual might; she has the power to stamp any fresh human life she introduces into the world with the seal of Divinity.
THE POSITIVE SIDE OF NIDDAH
But enough of this focus on the tamey. There is a very positive side to the laws of niddah that is worth studying as well.
"And Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother. He married Rebecca, she became his wife, and he loved her. And thus was Isaac consoled after his mother." (Genesis 24:67)
Rashi explains: as long as Sarah was alive, the lamp stayed lit in her tent from one Sabbath eve to the next, the dough was blessed and the cloud of God's presence hung over the tent. When Sarah died these spiritual phenomena departed; they returned when Rebecca entered the Jewish tent.
The Maharal explains that the phenomena described by Rashi describe the Divine response to the observance of the three Torah commandments that are the special province of the Jewish woman, the separating of challah from the bread, the lighting of the Sabbath candles and the observance of the laws of niddah.
When she rolls the dough, it is the woman's task to separate a part of the dough and present it to the Cohen; God's response to her diligence is to bless the household bread; instead of supporting only the physical, such bread has the capacity to nourish holiness. When the faithful daughter of Israel kneads her dough she kneads the mighty force of her own holiness into it.
It is she who ushers in the holiness of the Sabbath by lighting the Sabbath candles. The spiritual light in this world originates in the Sabbath, which is a foretaste of the World to Come and the 'source of all blessing.' The Jewish woman brings this spiritual flame onto the physical world and once again it is her power that keeps the light of spirituality and happiness flowing in the Jewish home through the week that follows.
Greatest of all, she creates the purity and sanctity of the Jewish home by overseeing the observance of the niddah laws; it is the Jewish woman's efforts that allow God's presence to find a comfortable resting place in the Jewish household. Through her self-sacrifice in the observance of this Mitzvah the male-female bond becomes a resting place for the Shechina.
The holiness of the union between male and female that is the goal of the Jewish marriage is entirely dependent on the spiritual purity maintained in the sexual relationship. Sexuality can easily become the simple expression of physical romance and can even descend to lasciviousness. The sexual organs were the ones that Adam and Eve felt compelled to hide as soon as they established their connection to the tamey force in the universe by partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The sexual union was intended to be a graphic expression of the spiritual oneness that can be attained in marriage through the love between the partners. Such purity requires that the love between the spouses be inspired by the mutual respect and admiration the spouses have for each other's spiritual qualities. Without extreme care and vigilance, love is more likely to turn into a means of gratifying romantic fantasies or the satisfaction of physical desires.
As all of us are too well aware, it takes great wisdom, understanding and self-discipline to inject holiness into this aspect of life. The maintenance of the spiritual purity of sexuality was entrusted to the Jewish woman and is guarded by her through her observance of the laws of niddah. These laws are a constant reminder that there is a tamey aspect to sexuality and allowing it freedom will result in women being regarded as sexual objects rather than the repositories of da'at, or wisdom..
The need to purify oneself spiritually in mikveh, the ritual bath, before engaging in intimacy at the peak of each new menstrual cycle serves as a constant reminder to the Jewish couple. It reinforces the Torah teaching that the physical aspect of their union has so much holiness that it requires an act of spiritual purification before it can be renewed. This transforms an act of potential self-indulgence into a quest for holiness.
Our society regards sexuality as a force that separates men from women. Identical in all other aspects, it is the sexual difference only that forces men and women to compete with each other. According to the latest theories of the evolutionary psychologists, each one is programmed by the differences between the X and the Y gene to pursue his own selfish goal and subjugate the other. Secular society is struggling to arrive at fair rules of engagement, so that men and women can coexist in a state of friendly rivalry rather than hostility.
The Torah aims for more. God enters the world only through the human spirit. Only a male and female joined together in serene harmony comprises a complete human spirit. Neither man nor woman can achieve spiritual completeness without the help of the other.
The Jewish couple serves as the gateway through which the Divine presence enters the world. The woman, being the chief repository of the trait of gevurah in the world, was the logical choice to be the one selected to guard the purity of this precious resource. The niddah laws and their observance were given not to impose a burden on her but to provide a tool to help her accomplish her mission. The faithful daughter of Israel offers her potential humiliation to serve as the foundation of the sanctity and purity in the world. The earth runs to reach the heavens powered by the mighty force of her energy.