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Lessons From Jewish Sexual Law (in a Sexless Pandemic)

Judaism has something to say about enforced sexual separation, and not just for the Orthodox

by
Merissa Nathan Gerson
June 17, 2020
Photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman
Photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman
Photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman
Photo illustration: Kurt Hoffman

The COVID-19 stay-at-home order has altered our sexual universe. It is a time when, according to the New York state guidelines for casual sexual encounters during COVID-19, “you are your safest sex partner.” Dating is now happening slowly, at a distance. First dates are Zoom calls instead of bars. Second, third, and fourth dates occur based on communicating verbally, not physically. With hooking up indefinitely delayed, with this new wave of dating like a frum pair at a hotel lobby, dating with no touch at all, does Judaism offer any spiritual solace?

The answer is an emphatic yes, if you are willing to look in an unusual place: at the ancient Jewish sexual laws of niddah. These laws—which of course were written for the particular sexual norms of their time—sanction regular time-bound periods of abstinence for married couples that end when the woman immerses in the mikvah, or ritual bath, emerging with permission to resume sexual relations. For the two weeks apart they don’t touch. They don’t pass the salt. They sleep in separate beds.

To many, the laws of niddah, prohibiting sexual acts during menstruation and the seven days that follow, are sexist and demeaning, treating women as a source of impurity. Others see them as functioning to keep a woman pregnant as often as possible—after all, those two weeks she isn’t engaging in sexual contact are when she is least fertile. And for the past 40 years, niddah has undergone a reclamation, one ripe with lessons for the current moment. In 1981, Judith Humber wrote in Sh’ma that “[m]ikveh and the laws of taharat ha mishpachahfamily purity—“have been used as instruments of oppression. But this does not mean that they need be, in themselves, oppressive. I believe that we need not to discard this significant part of our heritage, but to reclaim it.” The same year, Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg defended laws of niddah in her landmark On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition. Here, under quarantine, their insights about how niddah offers space for apartness, solitude, and reflection are suddenly relevant in a whole new way.

When engaging with, reinterpreting, and finding modern meaning in ancient Jewish sexual law, I use four lenses of interpretation. This is my intentionally paradoxical rubric: This law is sexist and misogynist. This law is feminist. This law is both. This law is neither. In the case of niddah, sexist and misogynist is easy to see. But what about feminist? How can the two weeks of impure menstruants being separated out from heterosexual, marital sex possibly be feminist, let alone useful, to those who love Tinder and stranger sex and Grindr and one-night stands and hook-up culture? What can it mean for the polyamorous, the sex-party attendees, the queer, the nonbinary, the binary and queer, the sexual revolutionaries, the pleasure-mongers, the sex-toy aficionados, and beyond?

Possibly, these two weeks offer the menstruant space to go through the cycle, to be in pain should they have cramps, to bleed, to have clots, to throw up or be sick, or to have moods, to go through change and release, and the complete and utter rebirthing of a cycle that their whole system is going through spiritually and physically. Is it possible the feminist side of niddah is the spiritual, physical, and energetic space afforded the menstruant?

The other positive side of niddah—and here, finally, we can begin finding useful wisdom from these ancient laws to our modern pandemic-bound abstinence predicament—is no pressure to have sex, to please anyone, to entertain a body needing something of your body. Let’s say the positive side of niddah, the feminist spin, is this world of personal experience for two weeks every month without being pressured by the pressures of a partner’s sexual needs.

“In a time where there is a lot of togetherness with our partners [for the partnered among us], I imagine there might be a big relief to claim time apart,” said Carrie Bornstein, founder of Boston-area mikvah Mayyim Chayim, “and time of separateness, time to reclaim their body. It could feel very comforting right now.”

But what more? For some, niddah offers reflection, space to view a relationship, to give and connect in new ways, without sex, without touch. For two weeks, that sexual energy gets rechanneled by both people in the couple into work, or community, or verbal communication, anything but sex. It provides a possibility for balance, and for reinvigorating a relationship. “Folks could find alternative ways of connecting and giving to fulfill the needs of another without physical intimacy,” said Rabbi Mike Moskowitz of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City. “The times of niddah invite us to strengthen, to develop, to work those muscles of communication, empathy, and connectivity and to exercise and develop other skills of intimacy that are not physical.”

A pandemic, however, isn’t quite two weeks, and it isn’t elective. So what about the single person who enjoyed their sexuality with others and no longer can? “This is crappy,” said Bornstein. “I feel for that person. And, maybe the forced time off can help us understand the world in a new way … ‘What can I learn about myself, my world and my relationships from this time of separation?’” This may be the medicine of this difficult time: a moment to recalibrate one’s own relationship to self, dating, and sexuality.

Or expand one’s horizons. Some people might find themselves using the international mechanism on Tinder, newly open to the public, and conversing with dates in Lebanon and India and South America, broadening their worldviews. Others might find talking—and talking and talking—might be a new path to intimacy, the first time they ever got past a first date without immediately going to bed. Others, still, might realize they had grieving to do, needed time to evaluate old relationships, or that their sexual patterns were exhausting, going from one partner to the next controlled by impulse not intention.

So for the husband-hunters, the love seekers, the recent divorcees, the hopelessly single, the sex addicts in recovery—for these people seeking a Jewish way to engage their love and sex life, a pause might not be such a bad thing. It might even, when yoked to another Jewish concept, kavanah, yield the love, sex, and full-body pleasure, the elevation and mind-blowing experience that they were looking for all along.

As a sex educator, I find kavanah the most vital ingredient in anything we might call “Jewish sex.” Kavanah, intention, is the difference between a mistake and a win when it comes to dating. It is the idea that we cultivate standards, lead with clear wants, needs, and desires, and find different results. Niddah as a set of laws are meant to structure a heterosexual marriage. But when borrowed for this time and place, they can be about taking space for anyone funneling sexual energy into community, or art, or communication—and ideally one does all of that with kavanah, an understanding of clear personal intention. This time apart offers us space to work through our relationship to ourselves, our partners, our potential partners, our deepest desires, and our sexuality. And to do so Jewishly. Taking a cue from the feminist interpretation of niddah laws, this time of enforced abstinence can be perfect for shedding some social conditioning, breaking patterns, grieving exes, and making space—with kavanah—for the biggest, best, and possibly most beautiful connections yet.

Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer, sex educator, and rape prevention advocate. She teaches Alternative Journalism at Tulane University in New Orleans.

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