By Kylie Ora Lobell
In Judaism, marriage is one of the most important priorities in life. You’re supposed to find your beshert (soul mate), get married, and have babies.
On the surface level, this domestic dreamscape seems pretty typical of the heteronormative fantasies we’re fed practically from utero. I’ll find the perfectly complementary being to my own being, and then create a perfect mini version derived from our own perfect love! Our culture is obsessed with this idea; we’re positively steeped in impossibly crystalline love. Perhaps we have to look no further than the seemingly never-ending Bachelor series to understand how our culture cultivates a desire for conventional Happy Endings.
But while the Torah ostensibly offers yet another version of improbable partnering with The One, when you dive deeper, much of its advice is predicated on work. And strict laws. Which I realize seem antithetical to passion, but I’m here to tell you it’s quite the opposite.
The Torah tells you, explicitly, how to conduct yourself in your marriage in order to achieve fulfillment as well as foster closeness with your partner and God. (Hint: It doesn’t involve expressing your love with emoticons or screaming out the holy one’s name during The Act.)
No, it’s a little deeper than that. In Judaism, there is something called the laws of family purity.
Essentially, according to these guidelines, couples shouldn’t have sex, sleep in the same bed, pass one another anything, share food and drinks, or even lift something like a piece of furniture together during the wife’s period. After the woman’s period is over, the couple has “seven clean days” in which they still don’t touch.
Following those two weeks or so, the woman goes to her community mikvah, which is a pool of natural water, located within a building in a Jewish neighborhood. She gets ready at home or at the mikvah by thoroughly cleaning herself in a private shower or bath. She can make an appointment for the mikvah, or just show up.
The mikvahs are tended to by volunteers and workers, who make sure the private rooms are clean and the waiting area is in order. In other words, you won’t find dusty, dog-eared, two-year-old People magazines up in there.
The mikvahs are either simple or ornate, depending upon how much the community donates to it and what sort of neighborhood it’s in. (For example, in some communities where there are thousands upon thousands of Jews, it may be nicer, though that’s not always the case.)
Following her washing, the mikvah attendant inspects the woman and makes sure she has clean hands and feet — no open scabs (TMI?) — and isn’t wearing any makeup or nail polish. The woman can leave her robe on if she wants — this isn’t like other spas, so there’s no pressure to be completely naked around other ladies.
The woman dips in the water a certain number of times according to the tradition she follows, says prayers, and when she comes out, she and her husband are able to touch again. Hallelujah, right?
When I first learned about the laws right before getting married I thought, People go half the month without touching? How does a marriage survive? How do people not go — for lack of a better word — meshuga?
But nothing in Judaism — like much of life — can be explained just by looking at it on the most literal level.
I’ve met a lot of Jews who stop following the religion because they read the Torah without the commentary from learned scholars and rabbis. They see God as angry and demanding, and sometimes cruel — the rules are seen as nonsense. But to this I say: You are reading one of the great works of literature without hearing what analysts, critics, and academics are saying about it. Hell, even when we read Of Mice and Men in ninth grade, we talked about it. Extensively. (I’ve always found that in the majority of “classic” literature, it always comes down to phallic symbols for some reason. Thank God the Torah is not the same).
But despite my initial reaction of, oh hell no, I decided not to flee, but to study the laws in depth before making up my mind. I wanted to give them a fair chance. After all, I had been living in an Orthodox Jewish community for years, and I saw what at least appeared to be many happy married couples. I didn’t know the depth of these laws because I wasn’t yet married, but I figured . . . it couldn’t be all that bad.
I started studying alongside a female teacher about these laws (as is custom before getting married) and realized just how meaningful and beautiful they are, even though they’re undeniably difficult. Slowly — but surely — they not only began to make sense to me, but also to feel rather appealing.
I converted to Judaism through the Orthodox tradition, so I know firsthand how difficult following the rules can be. But few great things in life — even life itself, if you want to get meta about it — aren’t also really, really tough. So unless you’re privy to some cosmic shortcuts I’m not, you have to work on your marriage. Constantly.
And I can’t lie. The laws of family purity add an entirely new level of difficulty to a marriage, but immense joy as well. The great thing about Judaism is that the laws are not black and white. There are various interpretations and practices within the religion. If you don’t follow a law completely, you aren’t going to Hell. You just might not be as connected with God.
If couples do choose to be strict about the rules, and in turn, find subsequent conflict in the wake of their observance, they find ways to temper it. For instance, if they find themselves fighting during this time of the month, they may schedule dates so that they can still feel emotionally close to one another. Or take the time physically apart to be emotionally apart as well, and work on themselves. Or ensure that they’re staying healthy with exercise and meditation, or spend time with their respective friends. There’s myriad ways any and all of these practices — and innumerable others — could improve a relationship.
But strict observance is not without its hardships. An extremely rough situation may arise when a woman bleeds or spots between periods. Depending upon some factors, like the color of the stain (yup, blood can be brown and red . . . but other stains can happen) the couple may have to start the no touching ritual all over again. If she’s not on birth control, the couple might consult their rabbi and see if it’s alright to go on it as a means of waylaying pregnancy for a while. After all, a healthy marriage and shalom bayis (peace in the house) is crucial.
To outsiders, asking a rabbi for permission to go on birth control, being separated during one’s period, and going into a ritual bath of cleansing may seem sexist or anti-feminist. Or both.
I get it. I have my own qualms with some of the rules regarding women and Judaism, just like I have issues with some of the other laws that aren’t related to family purity. But I’d say that 99% of the time, I don’t feel like I’m being degraded or disregarded or discriminated against.
Many women will say it’s empowering that so many of the laws — especially the ones of marriage — revolve around them. The responsibility of ensuring that your household is sacred is on the woman. No, it doesn’t mean that you’re the one who has to stay home, watch the kids, and vacuum all day quaffing valium and generally feeling like a glorified servant. It implies that you make sure the praying’s gettin’ done, you’re upholding the Sabbath, and you and your family learn the Torah.
Also in Judaism, women have the choice to follow the system. In fact, in Jewish marriage laws, sex is the woman’s right. Her husband cannot withhold sex from her.
In Jewish sex itself, almost anything goes, as long as it’s not done during the time of niddah and it’s consensual. There are some rules (no condoms, no group sex, the lights should be off), but overall, sex is encouraged. It’s considered good and healthy, not nasty or dirty. (I mean, it can be nasty and dirty, as long as it’s within the context of marriage.)
Whether you agree with the laws of Jewish marriage or not (and I’m not saying they should be practiced by non-Jews or Jews who don’t believe in it), there are a lot of great arguments for it. Intimacy can be created in mental and emotional ways instead of just physical ones. If you can’t have make-up sex, you are forced to talk things out, which may lead to revelations about your partner. You also may not get as sick of each other over the years (hopefully).
On a community level, the actual mikvah has kept the Jews living together in the same areas for many, many years. Families will move to certain places to be close to a mikvah. The need to live in close proximity has ensured that the Jewish people stay strong and thrive.
Plus, some say that niddah laws help with conceiving children — sometimes the most fertile window of ovulation lines up with the same time couples can touch again.
The positive upsides regarding the laws of family purity that I’ve described are not in the Torah. The Torah simply states the laws; I believe that the Torah was written by Moses and dictated by God.
I also believe that many of the rabbis who wrote the oral law as commentary on the Torah had prophecies and could interact with God. I believe in the wisdom of my religion and that it possesses a lot of great values for the non-Jewish world as well.
I’ve chosen this belief system, I live my life according to it to the best of my ability, and in the five years since I started undertaking this lifestyle, I’ve seen many benefits of my practice. I do the Sabbath every week, which means I won’t check my phone, drive a car, or switch electricity on and off for 25 hours from Friday night to Saturday night. I go to a dinner and a lunch with community members or host guests at our house. I pray in synagogue.
All of this has given me a sense of inner peace since I have one day of rest and recharging and completely present socializing. I eat kosher food and fast on some of the holidays, which has taught me self-control. I follow laws like feeding my animals before myself and thanking God every single morning for keeping me alive. It has taught me kindness and to be grateful.
So, no. The laws of family purity aren’t easy and don’t always make sense, but I’ve experienced their vast benefits to my life, marriage, and spirituality. And that’s a holy trifecta I can get behind.