Wednesday, November 15, 2006

translations and navels (and a joke!)

Okay, for those of you who avoided, patiently waded or Googled your way through, here is the quick explanation for this post. I promise to follow all explanations with the Toddles' first joke, so stay with me.

Or skip down to the line of stars, your choice.

Right, then. Assuming that boredom needs no explanation, let's jump right in. The Judaic laws of taharat hamishpacha, or family purity:

Please be aware that you are getting my perspective on these, my religious positioning, and while I'll try to be somewhat even-handed, that's what I've got on offer. Another place to look might be this nicely balanced explanation, or this one, which offers only the more stringent approach - as if it is the only option, mind you. Yup, as with all things Jewish, taharat hamishpacha exists on a spectrum of observance, with people modifying the practice (though they may object to the term) based on community standards and even to personal needs.

In case anyone is wondering, my brand of Judaism is called Modern Orthodox, which means that members of my community may or may not practice some of the farther right wing traditions. For example, we may wear hats instead of wigs once we marry, or we may wear both or neither other than in synagogue. (more on that from me here, if you can bear it.)

Briefly, then: taharat hamishpacha means a husband separating from his wife during a woman's time of impurity. Most literally, this means during her period, when she is considered impure. Now, I should remind you of two things here: first, that Judaism is a patriarchal religion, so turn off all feminist parts of your brain while reading this. (I often find this difficult, and sit in synagogue with a tiny, Seven Sisters voice deconstructing the events. Oh, well.) Second, many compare this impurity to the kind assigned to a mourner, who also should abstain from sex. I like this idea, because the concept aligns with a number of other points, all not important here, but the bottom line is that during her period, the woman is mourning for the life that is not growing in her womb. As I noted here, sometimes we notice it. Sometimes we don't.

After the time of impurity, the woman goes to the mikva, or ritual bath. But the exact length of the 'impure' time is a bit debated. Most Orthodox Jewish women wait one week after they stop bleeding (and there are various ways to check to be sure the period is over), and then go. Separation from the husband continues for this week. The night of the bath, you soak in a tub, remove all nail polish, makeup, contacts, jewellery and in nothing but your skin, go dip yourself in water that has either fallen from the sky or running water (mixed with some rather chlorinated ordinary stuff, mind you). The idea is to strip away everything, and to cleanse. It's relaxing, a bit sybaritic (tho' no bath oils allowed) and a distinct PIA in a lifestyle aching for time to do anything. And yet often rather nice.

Really, it's rather nice. And then, as I mentioned, whoopie.

Because this trip to the mikva is really a precursor to sex, some people feel it is private. So the women in those communities will avoid each other's gaze, the mikva might even have private cubicles instead of a big open waiting room, and schedule you so that you meet noone either coming or departing. This annoys me, as I know that the statistics for an Orthodox Jewish woman having an orgasm are alarmingly bad, and I think some open, frank talk about sex would be good for us. Preferably with diagrams.

Having said that, there is something about avoiding sex for half of your married life. Given that too many of us aren't that good at it anyway, the marriage is forced to a foundation built on communication, and all of the interaction that characterizes the pre-marriage stage, when the Orthodox Jewish couple are courting without, as the kids say, benefits. Ah, yes. I remember that well. Paul, I believe, has something to say on the subject - or was it Augustine? Either way, yes, they are so very right.

Now, some quick glossary:
harchakot: the measures taken to prevent sexual contact during the period of impurity. Now, for the Orthodox, who avoid pre-marital sex, pre-marital contact (no kissing, no hugging, no hand-holding, etc), harchakot mean no physical contact of any kind. Many avoid even handing an object to their spouse, to avoid brushing fingers. A sort of feeling of flirtation emerges, and this is either irritating or kind of fun. Some find this distance upsetting, however, and difficult. They work to set limits that balance their need to feel connected to their spouse, while respecting taharat hamishpacha.
machmir: strict, stringent
seven nekiim: seven 'nekiim,' or clean days, post-period
shomer: observant. Someone who observes the Jewish sabbath, or shabbat, would be shomer shabbat.
yoetzet: a woman who can answer halachik (Judaic law) questions. Here is the relevant website: The marvel of the yoetzet is that, instead of having to discuss the state of one's undies with a rabbi, one can ask another woman. Infinitely more comfortable for all involved.

And now, the Toddles' first joke:
We were sitting in the car, waiting for Mary Jr. The Toddles was grumping at me for having put him back in the car, again, and why hadn't I pulled him out and cuddled him (I had) or at least fed him?

That last, I could answer. I pulled out crumbly rice cookies, and he and Mary J. made a wonderful yummy mess in the back seat. Then, I gave him his sippy cup. Bah! he excalimes, and grabbed for it.

He guzzled a bit, and then, with the gremlin gleam in his eye, considered the cup for a moment. Solemnly, he put the his eye. I laughed, and said, silly baby, that goes in your mouth, not in your eye!

Again, he considered. Then he turned the cup upside down, and put the bottom of the cup up to his mouth. Yes, your mouth. But silly baby, I said to the grinning child, that end goes underneath!

He laughed, and put the wrong end up to his eye. Then reconsidered and started drinking from it again.


mother in israel said...

From one of the sites you quoted:
Two weeks after a woman has begun to menstruate, she is most fertile and likely to conceive. At the same time, a man who has abstained from sex for two weeks will have an increased sperm count. Thus, observing this period of separation can increase the likelihood of conception. Secondly, it is believed that women who have sexual intercourse while menstrating are more vulnerable to a variety of vaginal infections and even cervical cancer.

I found this a bit disingenuous. What about all the women who can't get pregnant because they ovulate before getting to the mikva? The only way that it increases chances of conception is by the fact that it is an obligation that happens to be at the most fertile time for many women. But by no means all.

mother in israel said...

Oh, and while our mikva is friendly, the topic of orgasms hasn't come up. Yet. And I certainly haven't had to abstain for half of my married life, with six pregnancies and one-two years of postpartum infertility with all but my first child.

mama o' the matrices said...

m.i.i., nope, didn't work for me either. We of the oddly long cycles salute you, I suppose. But I know a woman whose rabbi worked with her to wiggle her observance around according to the ob/gyn's analysis of her cycle (early ovulation, as opposed to the late ones), and presto! Bun in da oven.

Having said that, the majority of women do work on more or less the four to five week cycle, I believe. But at a recent mom night out we found that the majority of us had had fertility oddities, making me wonder how true the classic four week cycle really is.

And yes, thank heavens for the postpartum infertility. Breastfeeding has been very, very good to me, too...

m.i.i. - what would I do without you to keep me nuanced?