As a young girl learning about menstruation for the first time, my favorite book on the subject featured a double-page spread that displayed cartoon illustrations of different women and their bodies. Each woman was a different age, a different shape, each wearing a different facial expression. There must have been over two dozen, lined up right next to one another. I remember being in awe at how incredible it was that each of those people on that colorful page were so different.
Whenever I teach Hilchot Niddah to a couple or a class, I think about this diversity of life experience, and of what a book like that might be like if it were about Niddah. It would be easy to assume that a book about this subject would focus narrowly on one kind of experience or observance. But the truth is, if you opened this book, the Niddah practices depicted in the double-page spread would not just look one way; not even close! There would be dozens, hundreds, of iterations and traditions.
Hilchot Niddah form a formidable pillar in living a halachically observant lifestyle, but since they are private, any struggle within them can be isolating. It can feel like there is only one way to experience them. So it’s crucial to remind myself that the woman, the couple sitting in front of me, is carrying their own experience and history. Their own relationship to Hashem, to halacha, to body. It is my job to listen deeply to discover the contours of how they might relate to the cycles of menstruation, the seven clean days, and immersion in the mikvah.
In 2015, ImmerseNYC began convening what we called Mikvah Salons, where we would gather folks from all walks of life to bring their experiences into the room. Though it was wonderful that people had an opportunity to relate to folks with the same experience as theirs, from my perspective in the facilitator’s seat, one of the most powerful and healing things about these salons was the fact that within one room were so many experiences of the same halacha. Some positive, others less so. Some had transformed their relationship with different parts of the halacha even within a short span of a married life, even more so in longer marriages.
Each time we began a salon we start with an exercise. We pulled different texts about Niddah–halachic, personal, from books and essays, and placed them around the room. Each person received three different colors of post it notes. Each color represented a reaction: I love this and it excites me, this makes me upset or angry, or I feel totally neutral. Silently, you could walk around the room and affix the post-it to each text or image. At the end, we take stock of the waves of color and let the experience set in.
There’s also a much more private way to do this exercise. When I’m sitting with a couple, about to learn the laws of Niddah for the first time, I take out the page of quotes, lined up on a single page. At this point, I simply ask–which resonate with you? Which provoke a negative reaction within you?
There has never been a time when I have not been moved by the conversation that ensues.
Female Partner: I think this quote that names feeling a “part of something above myself which is bigger, stronger, and more everlasting than I am” and being “connected to Jewish women all over the world” most resonates with me. Even though I sometimes have trouble with different pieces of observance, this mitzvah in particular feels like in locks me into the chain of tradition of my ancestors. Does that make sense?
Male Partner: Definitely, that’s really interesting that you feel such a deep connection to this halacha. I have to say, though, that for me, this one about how Niddah is a halacha like any other makes the most sense to me. I feel like it’s kind of like kosher or shatnez. I don’t particularly like the laws or find meaning in them but I believe that the laws of Niddah must be “taken as a total picture” with all other halachot.
Me: Thank you both so much for sharing. How do you think this difference in approach may impact how the two of you experience Hilchot Niddah in your marriage?
I’ll let you imagine the way the conversation might have continued. The thing is, though, the conversation has never gone exactly the same way, whether in a large group with only women or between a couple.
The most wonderful gift, however, is that at the end of the conversation I can share that this has been an opportunity to feel the wide diversity of connection to the laws and know that wherever you are on the spectrum, you really do fit.