“Imagine you’re with your wife at some official dinner, and you’re arguing in a whisper about something. And you say to her, ‘It’s not the time now. Let’s talk about it in a few hours, when we get home.’ Then imagine that this situation lasts for two weeks. That it’s impossible to bring it to an end in a nice way. Yes, you can talk, but it’s all done in a cold, serious way. When there’s no possibility of a soothing touch – in any way, shape or form – everything becomes harder. Think about it, even when two men argue and make up, they embrace at the end.”
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That’s how David (not his real name) describes the frustration of living according to niddah, the stringent religious laws of family purity. David was 17 when he married; his wife was just fourteen and a half. He complains that their physical intimacy, which got off to a bad start with a traumatic wedding night, has been adversely affected by observing niddah. The Torah says that a menstruating woman is “unclean” for seven days, and is only permitted to be with her husband after waiting, immersing and purifying herself.
The halakha, Jewish religious law, expanded on this prohibition, extending the period of separation to about two weeks per month (the exact time varies from woman to woman). During this time, the couple must completely abstain from physical contact and cannot even pass an object directly to one another. When the woman has stopped menstruating, and counted seven “clean” days that must be scrupulously checked, she immerses in the mikveh, and that night sex is obligatory. “Sometimes it can be a magical moment, because it comes after this period of separation, but sometimes it’s the total opposite,” says David. “It wrecks everything, when you have to do it even when you don’t feel like it. In halakha there are no special adaptations. You can find some lovely interpretations, and you can spruce it up with midrashim [a genre of rabbinic literature] and different ideas, but bottom line – even if it doesn’t suit you, what’s obligatory is obligatory.”
Four years ago, David and his wife stopped observing some of the mitzvot and left the Hasidic world. “In terms of the laws of niddah, we stopped keeping anything, because nothing was good there. We still keep Shabbat, more or less. I wear a kippah and our kids go to a religious public school. But niddah? I don’t miss that at all. Whenever we talk about it, we end up saying what a nightmare it was, and how could we have lived that way? It ruined a lot more than our love life. It caused tremendous problems. A lot of people say that it strengthens your love life, but I think they’re just saying that. They can’t mean it. The feeling now – when I touch my wife and hold her every night – it’s a whole other world.”
Filmmaker Anat Yuta-Zuria turned her lens to niddah observance in a movie she made 16 years ago, entitled “Tehora” (“Purity”). One of the most interesting discoveries she made in the course of her research was the apparent inverse relationship between strict observance of the niddah laws and the quality of the couple’s sexual relationship.
“Often what I found was that, the more dissatisfaction there was with the sexual relationship, the less that the women enjoyed sex and their bodies, the more closely they adhered to these two weeks of niddah. Couples who had passion, intimacy and sexual chemistry were more skeptical. For them, this mitzvah had become a kind of prison that prevented them from having more spontaneity in their relationship,” says Yuta-Zuria, who made the film while she was in the process of abandoning religious observance. Ten years earlier, she had become religious and married a religious man. When she adopted a religious lifestyle, Yuta-Zuria also had difficulty with the forced separation. “There are people for whom it works. And then again, there are also people who like S&M or threesomes. I definitely met women who love this mitzvah and feel that it adds excitement. But a lot of times, the woman puts a lot of effort and emotion into this moment, into the mikveh night, and end up with a lot of hurt and frustration. And if she really doesn’t feel like it just then, on that night? She still has to.”
The narrative that presents family purity as “the secret Jewish magic formula for preserving sexual passion and the longevity of a marriage,” as she describes it, only gained popularity relatively recently, says Yuta-Zuria. “In the Middle Ages, a man feared touching a woman because they believed that a woman was a kind of ‘demon’ who could kill living creatures, spoil food, and all kinds of other beliefs. At the time, heretics were warned to observe the mitzvah lest they incur a Divine punishment of death.
“The Mishna [part of the Talmud] says, ‘Women die in childbirth because of three transgressions: for not exercising care in niddah, challah and candle-lighting.’ But as science became more advanced, the argument that stressed the impurity of niddah became less dominant, and instead it became more common to stress that this custom is the key to a rich and stable, and constantly renewing, sex life,” says Yuta-Zuria.
Before making the film, and after it came out as well, Yuta-Zuria spoke about this sensitive subject with over 100 interviewees (most of them women, but some men as well). “One of the main problems in investigating this subject is that everyone lies, so it’s pointless to give out questionnaires. At my first meeting with someone, they’d tell me how wonderful it is, how they really connect to it, but after a while I’d start to hear more and more stories about the hardship and frustration it causes.”
She was surprised to find out just how deeply the observance of family purity had affected some of the couples, including some who appeared to be very strictly religious, and changed the way they observe the mitzvot. “It was a very wide spectrum – from full, scrupulous observance to dropping it completely. There were some who decided to adhere to the Torah commandment and abstain from contact for just one week, contrary to what the halakha says. There are all sorts of solutions and variations. Ultimately, only the couple knows what goes on under the covers.”