During 20 years of shepherding 12-year-olds through the bar/bat mitzvah experience, I can’t think of one instance when a family rejoiced when their child received Tazria and/or Metzora as their Torah portion. Hard to blame them, given the often cringeworthy subjects one meets there. And yet, on this Shabbat HaGadol, the closing section of Metzora offers a possibility for conversation and reconciliation through the very current subject of increasing access to feminine hygiene products, tampon taxes, exclusion from holy places for women in childbearing years, and the insensitive and often cruel practice of “period shaming.”
“When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be impure until the evening. And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be impure,” says Leviticus 15:19-20.
At an early age, I was taught that a valid reason to eschew Orthodox Judaism was because women, even with just the possibility that they might be menstruating, were considered taboo, “unclean!” (One fascinating theory for the origin of the word “taboo” is that it comes from the Polynesian word tapua, meaning menstruation.) I learned as an adult that the beauty, romance and magic of living according to the laws of niddah and taharat ha’mishpacha (family purity) is something to be treasured. That said, the whole system — of enforced physical separation each month during and for seven days after a woman’s period, followed by immersion in the mikvah — is a talmudic contribution; the Torah verses are not at all explicit about ritual immersion following menstruation. But within a loving partnership, where children are the goal and a monthly “wedding night” atmosphere is cherished, centering one’s intimacy around the days of menstruation can be deeply moving. Some even credit Judaism’s survival to the centrality of such laws among the Jews who follow the practice.
But across cultures and continents, the treatment of girls when they begin their periods, and as they move through childbearing years, is truly dismaying. Many women use euphemisms for describing their cycles, are embarrassed to purchase hygiene products, have heard crass jokes and comments about PMS and have had relationships adversely affected because of menstruation. Some have even experienced physical violence when needing a respite from sex during their periods.
A spokeswoman for Thinx, which calls itself a “period solutions company,” said: “Period-shame is something a lot of women feel. Those feelings of embarrassment … are then reinforced by society, which tells women that their bodies should be clean and tidy, and if they aren’t, that’s not something to be openly and honestly discussed. By anyone.”
But open and honest discussion is happening now. Melissa Berton and Rayka Zehtabchi won an Oscar in February for their documentary “Period. End of Sentence.” The film chronicles the efforts of women in Hapur, India, who make sanitary pads from recycled materials and educate their communities about the stigma and violence often associated with menstruation. India is a lightning rod for this topic, where courageous activists are openly challenging bans on women entering worship sites during their period days, or even, at some shrines, during all of their childbearing years. In San Francisco, the subject of the “tampon tax” is front and center, as efforts are underway to repeal this clearly gender-specific and punitive tax.
The move toward normalizing, even celebrating openly, this most natural of bodily functions, is encouraging. We’ve a long way to go to undo the claims of Pliny the Elder, who once wrote that the touch of a menstruous woman “turned wine to vinegar, blighted crops, killed seedlings, blasted gardens, brought down the fruit from trees, blunted razors, rusted iron and brass, killed bees (or at least drove them from their hives) and caused livestock to miscarry,” among other mayhem. Even Nachmanides maintained from his own experience that “if a menstruating woman stares at a mirror of polished iron, drops of blood will appear on it.”
The time of using menstruation to control women’s claims to authority, responsibility and even to simply having a say in society, must be over. On this Shabbat, as we count the final days to the Festival of Freedom, let’s declare ourselves free from stigmas and shame, and commit ourselves to giving full respect and honor to the miracle that prepares a woman’s body to conceive and give life. That would be a Shabbat HaGadol, a Great Sabbath, indeed.