Niddah and Illness

One of the problems we’ve encountered while keeping niddah is the issue of one or both of us being sick.

The niddah books talk about what to do when one partner is sick during niddah, and it’s pretty sexist:

When the husband is ill and there is no one else to assist him, his wife who is niddah may do what is needed to care for him. However, she should avoid [purely affectionate touching]. The rules are more stringent when she is ill than when he is, as when he is ill he is unlikely to initiate sexual contact.* When she is ill, he should be particularly careful not to touch her. 

-Deena R. Zimmerman, A Lifetime Companion To the Laws of Jewish Family Life, page 79. Based on shulchan aruch, Y’D 195:16-17. 

*The implication being, of course, that when a wife is ill but her husband is not, he will attempt to initiate sexual contact with her. Because, men, of course, are incapable of controlling their base animal urges.

This hasn’t really come up for us, mostly because we are relatively lax about touching during niddah and so of course the non-sick spouse can care for the sick spouse, even if it requires touching. Also, my husband is a big believer in the halachic theory that whenever someone is sick, you are supposed to do whatever you can to take care of them and put halacha aside. Even taking the time to make the calculation of “is she sick enough to warrant breaking halacha” is inappropriate in the situation, because your focus should be completely on the illness, not on the other halachot you might be breaking (shabbat, kashrut, fasting, etc.). Actually, we’ve talked about how this relates to pregnancy, and he’s expressed his concern that technically, a husband may not touch his wife or hold her hand while she is giving birth, and that that rule makes absolutely no sense to him. I’m glad we’re on the same page about that one, because you can bet that if there is an eight pound living being coming out of me, I will be grabbing on to my husband for dear life, and that’s just going to have to be okay.

Anyways, the point of this blog post really wasn’t supposed to be about touching while sick during niddah. It’s about being sick while not niddah. Because of the 2 week on/2 week off niddah cycle, there’s a lot of pressure to make the most of the 2 weeks on. Not just mikvah night, but the entire 2 weeks, because if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it soon enough.

But, when one or both of us are sick during the 2 weeks on, we’re not having sex. We’re just not up for it and kissing someone who is coughing is just not fun for either partner. Still, there’s that lingering thought that couldn’t we get sick just a week later, because as soon as we’re over this cold, we’re not going to be able to have sex for another two weeks.

This doesn’t mean that we effectively rape the sick spouse, as the shulchan aruch apparently thinks we might. It just means that it’s sad for us, and that the niddah gods didn’t consult with the winter cold gods to get their calendars in sync. Oh, well.

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Emotions and Observance

A friend once told me that keeping niddah was much harder than keeping any of the other mitzvot, because emotions come in to play much more so than other halachot, like shabbat or kashrut.

At the time, I agreed with her. I mean, niddah walks its way into your bedroom, pokes its head into your sexual life, and stays there, like a mole, interrupting time that should be private.

However. As I gave more thought to the idea, I started to think that perhaps other halachot are like that as well. I mean, the very idea of halacha is that it’s a life-system, it should dictate each and every decision that one makes.

I felt the emotional pull of halacha shortly after I got married. I was used to waiting 3 hours between meat and milk, my husband waits 5. I agreed that since traditionally the woman takes on the man’s customs after marriage, I would change my custom and start waiting 5. It made sense to me, at the time. I was thinking of our future children, and how it might be confusing to them if mommy waits 3 hours and they have to wait 5, or if daddy waits 5 but they wait three.

I believe now that this idea is naive. I actually WANT my children to appreciate the fluidity of halacha and the distinction between law and custom.

I also believe that the concept of wife taking on husband’s customs is patriarchal and sexist. This is actually the ONLY situation in which I just blindly accepted his customs. When I pray, I pray the way I always have. At Chanukah, I light my own menorah, and plan to have our children light theirs as well, even though in his household, only his father lit a menorah. When we make kiddush on shabbat, he says the blessing over the wine and I say the blessing over the bread (this was actually his suggestion, and I love it), even thought neither of us grew up in a family that did that. We generally believe in adopting customs that make sense to us, not simply customs that have been handed down from father to son, forsaking the daughters and mothers.

So, yes. The 5 hours thing bugs me. Every single time when I choose to wait instead of having dairy, when it has been somewhere between 3 and 5 hours. Over shabbat, I wanted an iced coffee with milk 4 hours after having meat at lunch. I was in turmoil-I really want this drink, and I’m really bitter about this whole 5 hour thing. After debating with myself for approximately half an hour, I decided to “screw it to the man” and assert my position that this whole paternal custom thing is ridiculous and damn it, I was going to have milk in my coffee.

I opened the fridge, and realized that we had a bottle of soy milk sitting there, about to spoil in the next couple of days if not used immediately. Oh, fine. I resigned myself to having pareve iced coffee for the sake of not wasting ingredients, but I still was going to inform my husband that I reject his 5 hour custom and I’m going back to 3.

(For the record, my husband was extremely supportive of my decision and laughed when I told him that I struggled with it for half an hour).

This was not about the milk. It was not about the coffee. It was about feeling belittled by halacha simply because of my gender.  I will say that I certainly have my issues with niddah, but the concept of emotions becoming intertwined with halachic observance is no less at play in kashrut or shabbat (Have you ever had to walk out of court early because the sabbath was coming? Not fun.) than it is with niddah. By its very nature, halacha is designed to function within a persons emotional sphere. Sometimes I appreciate it, but other times I don’t, and for me, thats when I really have to examine my emotions and figure out what the true issue really it.

On Daughters

One of my strongly held opinions is that everyone has a story. I love following Humans of New York for that reason. It makes me think about who could be sitting right next to me, what they might have gone through, what they might have seen, what they think.

I don’t generally talk to the strangers around me, however. I often prefer to commute in silence, and I know others do, too. There’s nothing worse than waking up too early, planning to sleep during your hour-long bus commute, and finding yourself sitting next to someone who just wants to tell you about themselves.

BUT. Yesterday, the man I sat next to on the bus had so much to say that I couldn’t help but be interested. It started when I asked him about the bus schedule, he answered me, and then proceeded to tell me all about his job, his family, and his religion. It was fascinating.

Early on in the conversation, he told me that he had older daughters, but younger sons. He said he wished it were the other way around, because he would have liked his children to help him shovel the 10 inches of snow that recently fell, but that his sons were too young and “I can’t make my daughters do that”.

I said, half jokingly but actually very seriously, “If your daughters are big enough to hold a shovel, they can help shovel the driveway”. He said, “Nah, I couldn’t make them do that”. I let it go, and he went on to tell me about his life in the military, being shot in Saudi Arabia when he was 18, his view that Jewish women were much more liberated than Muslim women, and many other things.

Then he told me that his oldest daughter is a sophomore in college and she wants to join the Navy when she graduates. He doesn’t think it’s a terrible idea, after all, she’ll go in as an officer and her education will be paid for and she’ll have a great career ahead of her. His wife, on the other hand, is terribly opposed to the idea, fearing for her daughter’s safety.

I just listened as he told me all about his family’s drama, but as I thought about it, I remembered his earlier statement about the snow. This woman is not some feeble lady. She wants to join the Navy. Even if she has a desk job, she’ll have to go through basic training, which is much more physically demanding than shoveling snow. And he doesn’t mind that–he’s even in support of the idea! If his daughter can spend 10 hours a day climbing through ropes courses and learning to shoot, she can pick up a shovel and help her family clear the snow from their driveway. Fathers shouldn’t be afraid to give these chores to their daughters.

Tefilin: The Route to Empowerment?

It seems that the issue of the day is women wearing tefilin. For those of you living under a rock–or, you know, outside the tristate area–SAR school in Riverdale recently made a statement that it would allow women to put on tefilin during school prayer services, if they desired to do so. The Ramaz School quickly followed suit, sending home a letter to parents clarifying that their policy would also be to allow women to put on tefilin.

The blogosphere blew up with articles, both in support of these women and against them. And let me tell you, there was A LOT of opposition. Avital Chizik wrote that we don’t need tefilin because there are other, more serious issues facing the female community. Eliana M. Aaron wrote that a woman taking upon herself the obligation to wear tefilin is actually anti-feminist because it takes women away from their roles as mothers and wives. (I can’t even).

I’d like to respond specifically to Avital Chizik’s article, because I saw it spread like wildfire around facebook, with friends from all walks of life in support of her position.

Well, I’m not.

For full disclosure, I don’t regularly put on tefilin. I did once, when I was teaching at a Coservative hebrew school, and I had to teach my students how to put it on. I found the experience incredibly moving. I was using an old pair of tefilin, someone’s grandfather’s that had been kept in tip-top condition, and as soon as I wrapped myself in the leather straps, I felt like I had this metaphysical connection with generations of Jews who came before me.

But I digress. I don’t regularly put on tefilin, mostly because the issue never came up and a little bit because I was afraid of being a trailblazer. But I have nothing but support for the women that do.

Avital says in her article that she finds it hard to put in to words what she has been feeling during this debate, but that she’s going to try. I, too, have been having trouble articulating exactly what my thoughts are, but since she tried, I’ll try.

She starts off with:

The average Orthodox woman today is not preoccupied with fighting for ownership over her father’s and husband’s rituals. To imagine otherwise is at best sensationalist and at worst delusional.

She is right. But that shouldn’t be a reason not to discuss the issue.

Then she says:

Ask the average Orthodox woman what threatens her stake in this community – and she will tell you that it is certainly not tefillin, … Ask her what she is worried about – and you will hear a very different kol isha (woman’s voice), if you only listen. Women here are worried about living in a world where family status is essential, definitive and fragile: where the unmarried, the childless and the divorced occupy a lower caste. Women who are denied divorces continue to waste away for years, waiting for freedom to remarry. Abuse in our community’s schools is taking painfully long to be investigated.

It’s true! Those ARE important, pressing issues in our community. But, listen very closely, THEY ARE NOT THE ONLY ISSUES. Why must we enter an argument over “my subjugation is worse than yours”?  Why can’t I fight for agunot AND ritual inclusion?

And that brings me to my final point. Avital laments how women in her community, a flourishing modern orthodox community, are still afraid to let their voices be heard. They’re afraid to talk too much at the shabbat table, for fear of being considered “male”. They choose to talk about trivialities, not because that interests them, but because if they talk about serious topics people will look at them funny. They go to shul and stand in the back and chat about their kids, because, well, that’s what women do.

She’s right. These are major problems in our community. But then there’s the kicker. She ends off her article with

So – tefillin? Adjusted prayer services? Female rabbis? Lowered mehitzahs? I’m not convinced… Because I don’t care to own the bimah. I simply want to own my mind.

She fails to make a major point of connection here. These rituals, which she dismisses as unimportant and not part of her world, could be exactly what is holding her back from empowerment. It’s natural that when men attend a friday night prayer service that is made up of approximately 50 men and maybe one or two token women (who mind you are hidden on the other side of the mechitza), led by a male rabbi, and then walk home with all the men chatting about the [male] rabbi’s sermon, only to come home to their wives who have spent the last hour setting the table and making sure the chicken soup stays warm, that everybody present at that meal will see a clear yet unspoken gender divide, in which women are good at cooking and cleaning and shopping, and men are good at thinking.

Avital fails to make the connection that the ritual observance in judaism is not simply about the rituals themselves, but about the meaning behind them. I believe the answer can be found in Tanach.

“Why have we fasted, and You did not see; we have afflicted our soul and You do not know?” Behold, on the day of your fast you pursue business, and [from] all your debtors you exact [payment]. ג. לָמָּה צַּמְנוּ וְלֹא רָאִיתָ עִנִּינוּ נַפְשֵׁנוּ וְלֹא תֵדָע הֵן בְּיוֹם צֹמְכֶם תִּמְצְאוּ חֵפֶץ וְכָל עַצְּבֵיכֶם תִּנְגֹּשׂוּ:

Isaiah 58:3

There are rituals, like fasting and putting on tefilin, but the rituals have underlying messages. Fasting is intended to make humans focus not on their day to day activities, but on God. Therefore, when the Jewish people fasted but did not internalize the message–spending their fast days transacting business instead of in prayer–God chastises them.

Similarly, the ritual of tefilin is intended to make torah learning an inherent part of a person. That’s why the boxes contain excerpts from the shema. When Avital complains that she’s not treated as an equal in regards to her mind or her learning, perhaps part of the solution would specifically be to adopt more rituals. To say that you didn’t fast on Yom Kippur, and yet you are upset that you didn’t feel a connection to God would be, in the Orthodox world of rituals, absurd. To say that you don’t want to attend minyan every day yet you feel excluded from the “good ole’ boys club” is also absurd.

I think that one way to effectuate change in female empowerment is to be part of the establishment, to be present, to lean in and to say, “I want to be here, so listen to me”. When you hang out in the background and then cry that your voice isn’t heard, well, then, part of the fault is on you.

Failing Mikvah

Last time I went to the mikvah, I’m pretty sure I failed. Okay, maybe I got a D. Just barely passed.

Just like an exam, I prepared carefully. I removed my nail polish and bathed and combed my hair and checked to make sure there were no stray hairs.

But as soon as the mikvah lady opened the door, things started to go down hill. For one, the slippers that the mikvah provides wouldn’t easily slip on to my feet. I had to wiggle, as if dancing, until finally I just bent down to put them on.

Then, when I got in to the mikvah, I said the bracha. I forgot that my custom is to dunk once and THEN say the bracha. Okay, just roll with it. I did my first dunk.

“Um, I think your hands were closed. Try it again” the mikvah lady instructed.

I tried again. Kosher.

Now for dunk two.

“You touched the wall.”

No shit I touched the wall. I was so paranoid to spread my hands and make sure that you could see that they were fully opened while I was underwater. Fine, I’ll do it again. Kosher.

By this time, I was so anxious about having screwed up twice already that I think I just wanted the whole thing to be over. I leaned back, and apparently went so far back that my head hit the side of the mikvah. OUCH. The mikvah lady didn’t even have to tell me to re-do. I knew.

Finally, I believe out of pity, she told me that my last try–the SIXTH of that night–was kosher. I’m not convinced there wasn’t any hand clenching involved, but if she said it was kosher, I’ll go with that. Frankly, I think we were both a little relieved I was done.

Mikvah Preparation for Men

Recently, I attended the JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) conference. It was a fabulous, enlightening, and thought-provoking day, and my only complaint is that I have to wait another THREE YEARS before the next one. The one session that stood out among the many others was the session on mikvah. It was called No More Whispers: Talking Openly and Honestly About Mikvah. The session used anonymous polling technology to allow participants to have a conversation and ask questions to others in the room via text message. One participant asked, “How can men prepare for mikvah night”. I responded that my husband prepares for the mikvah by showering and shaving. The room laughed, but I think appreciated the sentiment.

I have come to realize that this ritual that we do–I leave the house after he returns from work, while I’m cleansing myself he cleanses himself–is more than just happenstance for him. It really is his way of making the mitzvah of mikvah relevant to him, too. While he doesn’t immerse in the mikvah, he makes sure that he is thoroughly cleansed for my return. He showers, shaves, cuts his nails, and maybe even puts on a little cologne.

I realized how important this ritual was for him, when this past week, mikvah night fell on Monday. Monday was MLK day, so I didn’t have work. I told him I was thinking of going earlier in the evening, say around 5pm, right when the mikvah opens. That way, I’ll be all ready for him as soon as he gets back from work. He looked sad. “But then I won’t have a chance to prepare” he complained. It was only then that I realized, he doesn’t just shower and shave because it’s a good opportunity-his shower and shave are part of his mikvah night ritual, just as bathing and combing my hair are part of mine.

Judging by the response at the JOFA conference, this is not the norm. Apparently most men don’t have a mikvah night ritual. Perhaps some men have child care responsibilities that prevent them from having any sort of personal preparation time. But for the men who don’t, I would like to humbly suggest taking some time to prepare yourself while your wife is at the mikvah. You don’t have to soak in the bath tub for half an hour–unless that’s what you want–but do something. I think it will make mikvah night more special not only to your wife, but to yourself as well.

The Bar Exam is Awful

I would like to just complain a little bit about being a lawyer. Or, more accurately, about the process of becoming a lawyer.

1. The Bar Exam

This is the most grueling test you will ever encounter. In New York, there are over twenty topics tested (somewhere between 23 and 26, depending on how you divide the topics). You have to know them all perfectly, but you may not even get questions on some topics, or worse yet, the question will be buried so far under all the other material that you can’t identify it as a question. There are prep courses that cost anywhere from $1500 to $3500 and span 8 full weeks of 10 hour days. The bar examiners basically expect that you will be taking one of these courses. Don’t have a couple thousand dollars to drop? Don’t have the luxury of spending 10 hours a day studying (god forbid you have to work or take care of children while you are preparing for the bar)? Too bad, you’re basically screwed.

2. Limited Reciprocity

Worse than the exam itself, I would say, are the licensing requirements. Some states have zero reciprocity with other states, meaning, if you ever want to practice in, say, New Jersey or California, you would have to take that bar exam in order to get your license. And taking the bar exam is not fun. See number 1.

3. Limited Testing

The bar examine is given only in February and July. Twice a year. If you miss a deadline for your test date, you have to wait a whole six months to take it. And there are A LOT of deadlines. And A LOT of paperwork. Registering for the exam is almost as hard as taking the exam.

And then there’s me. I took the New York bar in July, and passed! Yay me. Well, then I got a job in New Jersey, but see, I never took the New Jersey bar because I was silly and assumed I would get a job in New York. Tsk Tsk. Well, now I’m stuck working and studying for the New Jersey bar, which is awful. But the worst part is, I don’t really feel like I can complain too much to my lawyer friends. See, because the bar is only given twice a year, the assumption is that everybody who graduates law school in May will take the bar in July. If you fail, you will take it in February. Therefore, the unspoken assumption is that every recent graduate taking the exam in February is doing so because he failed July. BUT I DIDN’T FAIL. I just didn’t take the exam at all. But without going into my whole work history, I can’t just throw the fact that I’m taking the bar soon into conversation, because of all the unspoken assumptions. So I suffer in silence, whine to the people who already know about my situation, and occasionally blog about it.

Now back to studying.