As a kallah teacher, before the wedding I make sure to discuss the wisdom and challenges of the dramatic ‘on-off’ shift the halakhic framework creates. We discuss common physical and emotional obstacles created by the laws, negative behavioral patterns to avoid and positive ones couples should cultivate during these challenging weeks. For the first niddah period after the wedding, I even provide suggested activities for them to stay busy and distracted from what for many couples becomes a traumatic experience of immediate separation.
Despite this preparation, I sometimes receive calls from brides (and friends) soon after the wedding voicing their struggles with the newly “inflicted” rubric of hilchot niddah, often feeling broken by the physical and emotional distance put upon them by these laws. I felt utterly abandoned, as if I was a newborn left to impossibly fend for myself, relayed one bright, resourceful, and mature new bride. I do my best to listen intently and validate their feelings, assuring them that time often acts as a healant in this case by giving the couple opportunities to learn how to live with the law. But the conversation always leave me shaken long after the young woman has hung up. After being married for a good number of years and the mother of children, the deepest parts of myself identify with their distress.
While most couples do not continually experience this monthly absence as traumatic – some couples even experience niddah as a welcomed break – others, like my husband and me, feel that a place deep inside of us withers during those two weeks despite our best efforts to make time for hand-holding-less date nights and empathic verbal communication.
Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages proposes that every human being has one primary and one secondary love language. In order for a person to feel loved, they and their partner must learn which ‘love languages’ they speak. For some, receiving gifts resonates and so until their partner buys or makes them a gift, no amount of laundry folded (what he calls ‘acts of service’) will do. For others, quality time is what they are after and so all the compliments in the world (‘words of affirmation’) will not move them. According to this theory, only a certain percentage of the population experiences physical touch as their primary love language, a language equally favored by men and women.
Chapman’s book has been a best-seller for years, and his wisdom has radically enhanced and even revolutionized relationships all around the world, but there is one point he does not consider. Physical touch is every human being’s primal love language. We are conceived through physical touch, arrive in the world through touch, bond with our parents as newborns through touch, and continue to receive healthy doses of physical contact from loved ones throughout our childhood. While we may grow to value ‘receiving gifts’ or ‘acts of service’ as more accurate portrayals of our beloved’s romantic sentiments, no one would claim that physical contact is replaceable. Of course, Chapman never considers the idea that any long-term romantic relationship would include elongated periods intentionally devoid of touch. Yet despite this fundamental truth regarding our basic human need, halakha dictates that we do just that each month. I believe that there is deep wisdom in the “off” concept and that it has the potential to greatly renew the intimate life of a married couple, but eleven or more days “off” a month is a break from physical contact which sometimes feels extreme. The women I have encountered who whimsically extol the virtues of these laws—due to pregnancy, nursing, and hormonal contraceptives—have spent very little time actually living with them.
I experience a profound dissonance when teaching these laws to brides. On the one hand, I know I teach them skillfully, replete with well-organized and in-depth halakhic knowledge and educate them about central concepts of physical and emotional intimacy. While I spend a significant portion of time on the development of the laws of niddah and empowering the young women to become familiar with the halakhic resources out there so that they can be genuinely confident in their observance of them, I think my job as an intimacy educator is just as important, if not more so, than being an halakhic instructor. I am honest about the challenges of halakhic married life without being deterring, and inculcate positive perspectives I have culled in the past few years from various wise teachers and friends that I found in my own search for connection with these laws. But sometimes I feel unworthy serving as their public face to such intelligent and insightful women, laws which cause both my husband and me loneliness and longing that often feels more harmful than helpful to our marriage. And while I continue to teach with candor and emunah, I constantly ask myself, “How does one teach these laws with authentic passion while simultaneously doubting their wisdom”?