Reflections on Modern Women & the Levitical Laws of Ritual Purity
by Marilyn Prever
When I was eleven years old, the news went around among the girls in our class that one girl had “gotten her period.” In those days that was unusually young, and we all gathered around, with much giggling, to talk to the celebrity. Our mothers had told us it meant “becoming a woman,” and we had an idea it was something rather grand and uplifting: In one day, in the twinkling of an eye, we would no longer be children but grown women, able to bear children.
“What was it like?” we asked.
“A bloody mess!” she replied, shocking us all.
Of course we knew it involved blood—our mothers had either talked to us or given us one of those booklets put out by the sanitary napkin companies, with the neat little diagrams of the female reproductive system and the cool assurances about how wonderful and “natural” it all was, and that if you should run into any difficulties, medical science and the Kotex Company were there to help.
When my own turn came, I discovered that not only was it a bloody mess, but that it involved pain, disability, and a level of inconvenience that meant the end of my carefree childhood forever. I was furiously angry and resentful—boys didn’t have to go through this! Unfair, unfair! And I wasn’t very impressed with the power of medical science and the Kotex Company either, which could offer no help at all for my severe dysmenorrhea except the suggestion (fashionable among doctors at the time) that the cause of any pain was the girl’s rejection of her womanhood.
Our mothers were right (they usually are): The pain, the mess, the disability was the sign of our womanhood. It was a great privilege, being able to bear children, but it also entailed our share in the curse on Eve. Of course in my modern, secular family we didn’t speak of curses, and certainly not of Eve, except in flippant allusions to apples and serpents. We were Jewish and proud of it, but we had no use for the Jewish religion, especially ugly, outdated customs like the mikvah (ritual baths) where observant women went to be washed of their monthly uncleanness. I had even heard that women were not allowed to touch the Torah scrolls, ever, just in case they might be bleeding. How lucky I was not to have been born in Eastern Europe, in the shtetls of Russia and Lithuania where my grandparents came from, cut off from the modern world and condemned to narrowness and irrational taboos.
So here I am, all grown up and very happily at home in the narrow, taboo-ridden Catholic Church, with its foundation in biblical Judaism, and not even one of those “cafeteria Catholics” but a glatt kosher one—strictly kosher, as the Yiddish signs said on the restaurants in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn. How could a child of the Enlightenment come to such a pass?
What I would like to explore here is the repugnance that modern Christian women often feel on encountering the Old Testament teaching about women and “uncleanness.” I would like to share my discovery that there is an alternative to what I had thought of as two equally impossible ways of approaching the subject: the modern scientific one, good and helpful in its way but in the end superficial (the world of the booklets with the diagrams); and the supposedly barbaric and misogynistic traditional one.
A Christian woman I know, speaking to other Christian women about the Levitical laws of ritual purity, expressed her feelings this way: “Is it just me, or have any of you ever felt abhorrence [at] the thought that you are considered unclean because you naturally, as created by God in the female form, shed your uterine lining once a month?”
That does look bad: Menstruation is natural, so how can it be “unclean”? The word seems to imply some sort of guilt. Did God create us wrong and then blame us for it? Unfair, unfair!
The Beginning of an Answer
First, as to the supposed unfairness, there is really no misogyny involved: Jewish men, after all, are commanded to be circumcised. If a Jewish woman’s monthly flow of blood puts her under special rules of separation, implying (perhaps) that her natural condition has been wounded in some way and needs to be handled delicately, what shall we say of a Jewish man’s natural condition, except that it must be at least as wounded if it needs surgery to make it right! A man doesn’t shed blood monthly, but his blood must be shed in infancy to consecrate his procreative power to God, under pain of being cut off from his people.
Circumcision is the sign of the Old Covenant; it isn’t a finger or a toe that has to be trimmed, but the organ of generation. Everything to do with procreation is sacred in God’s sight. For a man, the spilling of his seed makes him ritually unclean even if it happens unconsciously, during sleep. And if he does it on purpose, like Onan, he deserves death (Gen. 38:9–10). It wasn’t only the refusal to raise up children in his brother’s name that got Onan in trouble: The penalty for that sin was public humiliation (Deut. 25:5–10). It was the deliberate spilling of his seed that was a deadly sin.
To put it succinctly, the laws of ritual purity discriminate between men and women without discriminating against either one.
But the matter of unfairness—justice, equality, nondiscrimination, all the categories so dear to the modern world—only scratches the surface. As C. S. Lewis put it, equality is medicine, not food. We need equal treatment under the law in our public life, but in the things that are closest to our hearts—love, family life, worship—we don’t emphasize the sameness of the sexes but the differences. God’s Law reaches way beyond public life and politics.
Natural but Unclean?
The woman who felt “abhorrence” towards the laws of ritual purity—let’s call her Zipporah (Ex. 4:24–26)—objected not only to the seeming discrimination against women, but to something deeper: the idea that something natural is being treated as unclean.
The modern view of nature is very different from the biblical view. For one thing, we Christians see nature as good (“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”) but fallen. This is a difficult concept to get across to people who are used to yes-or-no answers. Eve’s punishment was that “in pain you shall bring forth children,” and presumably the pain includes all the suffering, disability, and dependency associated with a woman’s maternal nature, whether she becomes a mother or not. So this physical state is “natural” to a fallen world, and yet, “from the beginning it was not so,” and neither will it be so at the Resurrection of the Body.
But even leaving aside the Fall, there is a big difference between the old and the new worldviews: We moderns see nature (including our own bodies) as mechanism, something functional, something that science can best teach us about and technology help us manage. Zipporah spontaneously used the Latinate word uterus (“the uterine lining”)—not ecclesial Latin but medical Latin, the language of the science priesthood. She did not say womb, the word English-speaking Christians find in their Bibles and use in prayer. Elizabeth doesn’t say (in our English translations), “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your uterus.” Why not? Because the modern word brings with it a whiff of the modernist attitude, which is deadly to the spirit of Christian prayer.
The secularists want us to choose between (1) the idea that our bodies are simply “natural,” and subject only to the rules of nature (sex is just a natural function, and a condom will eliminate unwanted side effects like disease and babies), and (2) the idea that our bodies are evil and shameful, as they imagine religious people believe: Traditional Christians with their unhealthy habits of fasting and chastity, Orthodox Jews living in the past—what can we learn from them? Thoroughgoing secularists don’t see that a third attitude is even possible. They don’t see that nature is good, not evil, and yet wounded, and that the woundedness is at once material and spiritual, and can’t be set right by mere technology, which treats the human organism like a soulless machine.
Nothing about human beings is simply natural; in us, even the most animal functions take on a new meaning. Copulation becomes procreation, and procreation is sacred. That’s not a fancy way of saying it’s good because God created it; it means it’s set apart from the other good things that God created. It is literally pro-creation, a “creating forth” along with God, and the created being is not just another animal but a living Image of God, destined to be taken into the eternal life of the Uncreated Trinity. Procreation is at once powerful and delicate, and has to be regulated by rules that seem overblown to the secular mentality. When it’s not treated with great reverence, all hell breaks loose.
The very fluids in our bodies associated with procreation are full of meaning, and any society that treats them as mere chemicals risks, in a sense, the wrath of God, though it may appear in the form of natural consequences. As the old saying has it, “God forgives always, people sometimes, nature never.” An individual may or may not suffer in this world for committing sexual sins, but when the sins are publicly re-defined as rights or necessities and allowed to flourish unchecked, the society as a whole comes under a judgment.
How in heaven’s name did we get to a place where we have storehouses full of human embryos, stacked up like so many frozen microwave dinners, awaiting the decision of politicians about whether to kill them or use them as laboratory rats? How did we get to where the sad and ersatz acts that go under the name of “gay sex” are equated with the act of marriage and implicitly recognized by the state?
Flim-Flam & Poetry
This kind of moral insanity begins with a deafness towards God’s voice in creation. Think of the blood that circulates in our bodies. When the Hebrew Bible says that blood flowing outside your body makes you ritually unclean, when it says that “the blood is the life,” moderns get disgusted because it sounds “mystical.” Mysticism in their view doesn’t refer to a state of prayer; it means flim-flam: dust thrown in your eyes to prevent your seeing how irrational your religion is, or the political agenda it serves.
If moderns read that God said to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground,” they might recognize it as good poetry, but they don’t see why it should be taken so literally that he follows it up by saying, “And now cursed are you in the soil which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the soil it shall not give its fruit to you.” That’s taking poetry too far! The fertility or infertility of the soil is nothing but a matter of the laws of chemistry, isn’t it? Why should it have anything to do with whether you murdered your brother or not? And then later on there is the prohibition against eating blood, and all the kosher laws. Maybe they were good for people’s health, but why should anyone take all that trouble when we have better ways of preserving health nowadays?
But then if you hope to avoid all that by accepting the New Covenant where Christ “declared all foods clean,” it only gets worse: If you’re talking to a secular person and you let on that you’re Washed in the Blood of the Lamb, he’s horribly embarrassed. You seemed like such a normal person, and you turned out to be a weirdo fundamentalist fanatic.
And the Eucharist? Forget it! Better to keep it a secret, like they did in the early Church, revealed only to catechumens right after their baptisms. Protestants may not believe in transubstantiation, but they take the Blood of Christ seriously: It’s no light thing to “Do this in memory of me.” And as for Catholic and Orthodox Christians, just when it looks like we’re finally making our peace with the modern world, the world finds out that in the end we’re still barbarians, imagining we’re drinking the blood of our god.
Microscopes & Windows
Educated people know all about blood from biology class: It’s a fluid with various types of organic structures in it, that’s all. That’s all there is to know. If you want to find out more about it, use a stronger microscope. You’ll see that it doesn’t have a mouth, it doesn’t cry out, and it most certainly doesn’t wash people clean. All that is nothing but poetry, and even poetry, in secularist eyes, is no longer a window on truth, but a sort of decorative art practiced by effete, impractical people.
Students of literature may appreciate the depth of poetic symbols, but unless they have a religious view of life, they’re still missing something. They don’t see the eternal symbolism built into creation. “The whole of the spiritual world,” says St. Maximus the Confessor, “appears mystically represented in symbolic forms in every part of the sensible world for those who are able to see.” A symbol is more than a sign or a secret code, as if “symbol A” signified “spiritual thing B.” It is rather (at its highest) an epiphany: It communicates a spiritual reality that cannot be reduced to words . . . for those who are able to see. People who follow God’s laws in a spirit of humble obedience find that their minds and hearts are gradually becoming open to more of reality. They are living in a larger world, able to see both the view through the microscope and the view through the window of the symbol.
Sometimes our emotions are wiser than our intellects. A little girl who suddenly finds herself bleeding from the most private place in her body is going to feel distress and a kind of fear or awe, even if she’s read all the booklets; and however prim and hygienic she is, she is going to feel “unclean” till the bloody mess is over for the month. She can tell herself it’s all just “natural”—a shedding of the lining of the uterus—but something inside her knows better: an intuition that used to be called, appropriately, Wise Blood. The material symbol of her blood is communicating something to her about a spiritual reality. Something in her understands this, but she doesn’t know how to talk about it because her modern education hasn’t given her the words.
If you’re walking down the sidewalk and you suddenly see a red stain, you catch your breath: blood! Somebody was hurt here; maybe somebody died! In Israel, after a terrorist attack, pious Jews come with cloths to soak up the blood. We don’t do that in America; we call the cleaning crew instead, and they come with rubber gloves, buckets of water, and strong hygienic soap, and wash it down the sewer, out of sight. We don’t want to think about the blood that is the life.
It falls strangely on modern ears to say that procreation and everything connected with it is sacred, because it’s so physical, and so bound up with extremes of bodily pleasure (at conception) and bodily pain (at birth). Doesn’t “sacred” mean something like “spiritual”?
No, it doesn’t. Sacred things are, specifically, material things. When something is sacred, it’s set apart for God’s service, separated from the ordinary, the secular or profane. People can be sacred. Priests are set apart for God, and so are Jewish women around the time of their menses and after childbirth. The Hebrew word for this separation of women is niddah, a word that carries the meaning of separateness and sacredness and also, strangely enough, of some kind of wrongness. An Israeli friend of mine, a native Hebrew speaker who is very sensitive to the connotations of words, said that niddah is “not exactly ‘unclean’—more like ‘not kosher’—which is ‘not right’ rather than not clean.”
The usual Hebrew word for “holy” is kadosh. It’s used for the Holy Place in the Temple, for Israel as a holy people, and even for God himself. “ Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh—Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts—the whole world is filled with his glory.” This Jewish prayer, echoing the seraphim of Isaiah’s vision, is taken up into the Christian liturgy. The word is usually translated as “holy” or “separated,” but sometimes, in some contexts, as “defiled.” The related word kdesha is (my Israeli friend tells me) sometimes used for “a very unholy woman”!
There is a mysterious ambiguity about all these Hebrew words connected with ritual purity. The same word can express the idea of holiness and also of defilement. The first time I ran into this oddity was when I read the story of the sin of Achan (Joshua, chapter 7) where Achan disobediently takes and hides something that is cherem, which can be translated as either “devoted” or “accursed.” Because it was devoted to God, it became accursed on being misused. And though his sin was private, the whole People was weakened by it. The reader will not need my help to spell out the implications for modern life.
But what if there is no misuse or disobedience involved? As good Jewish parents, Mary and Joseph come with the infant Jesus to the Temple in obedience to the Law of Moses (Leviticus, chapter 12): A Jewish woman bears a child, and “ when the days of her purifying are completed . . . she shall bring to the priest . . . a burnt offering, and . . . a sin offering . . . and he shall make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood.” This is the sort of thing that makes modern women furious. All they can see in it is the baneful influence of misogynistic men. A sin offering? Atonement? What sin has she committed? Is she to blame because she obeyed God’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply?
People who have lived within the Orthodox Jewish community tell me that the words used in this passage and translated as “purification,” “sin,” “atonement,” “clean/unclean,” are misleading because, to our modern ears, they refer to deliberate acts of obedience or disobedience, moral actions that carry culpability, whereas the Jewish framework of thinking is very different—the cleanness or uncleanness is not a matter of sins we commit, but of life and holiness that either is or is not there. It may have a purely natural cause. It’s connected more with the way the whole cosmos works than with any kind of personal bad intentions. A whole section of the Levitical instruction on sin offerings is for sins that people commit by mistake, such as touching a ritually unclean person or object and only finding out later that it was unclean.
As a Chassidic woman pointed out, after childbirth the life that was within the mother is no longer there. “The thinking is that life is connected to the Source of all life. . . . What is translated as ‘impurity’ is actually a void in a person’s condition of holiness, restored by immersion in the mikvah and in ancient times by bringing an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem.”
This sounds to Christians a lot like the doctrine of original sin, with the “void in . . . holiness” comparable to the loss of grace, and the immersion in the mikvah a foreshadowing of baptism. But it’s not quite that. Christians see human nature as injured by the deliberate sin of our first parents and resulting in disorder of all kinds. Jews, with their deliberately less theological way of thinking, are more inclined to take the universe as it is, and put the emphasis on “orthopraxis, not orthodoxy.” The purpose of keeping the Law is to put us in a right relationship with God, and through him, with our own bodies, other human beings, and the whole cosmos (what we call, so flatly, the environment).
Good Intentions Are Not Enough
We Christians can learn something important from this Jewish attitude: It’s not enough to say, “I didn’t know. Nobody taught me. I didn’t mean to. I had good intentions.” Certainly these factors affect our culpability, but they don’t take away the consequences of disobeying a Law that is as inexorable in its way as the law of gravity. Sin causes suffering and weakens the whole People, whether it was committed on purpose or not.
For example, most contemporary Americans, including many Christians, honestly don’t understand why sexual union outside of marriage is supposed to be a sin. They know there is a danger of disease or of unwanted pregnancy, but these can be handled with technology, so where’s the problem? It must be that Christians are against pleasure! My husband and I used to help with marriage preparation for our parish, and we found that many of the couples were cohabiting. Some of them felt guilty about it, but many felt that they were not only innocent but virtuous, because living together saved money, and not only that, but they were being especially “responsible” because the woman was on the birth control pill. They thought God must be very pleased with them.
Where do you begin to unravel such a tangle of errors? We did our best in the brief time we had and were surprised to find how many couples were open to the truth (“Why didn’t somebody tell us before?”), but others had to find out the hard way that God doesn’t just want us to have good intentions, he wants us to keep his Commandments.
I do believe that the “sin” involved in Old Testament ritual purity is indeed connected with original sin, even though Jews don’t accept that concept. After we have made the point that God never holds us personally to blame for the sins of our progenitors, there is something more to say, and you hardly ever hear it said plainly: And that is that original sin in us is not just some kind of legal fiction, or even just the loss of grace, as if that left everything else intact, but part of what we are. It has been wisely said, “The things we’re most ashamed of are the things we can’t help.” We can’t separate ourselves from original sin as if it were something external—it needs the mystery of the New Birth to make us clean; it needs the Blood of Christ. The mikvah and the Temple sacrifices were foreshadowings; Christ did not correct them, he fulfilled them.
The Difference Between Men & Women
Men (males) have their own rules of purity under the Law of Moses, answering to both original and personal sin and beginning with circumcision. But women are much closer to the holy-yet-defiled sacredness of procreation. Physically, a man’s part in procreation is over after a single act, whereas a woman’s involves almost her whole life, from the monthly cycle to conception, pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. Because of our much greater involvement in the mystery of procreation, we are at once weaker and stronger than men, more vulnerable to defilement and yet also quicker to recognize the sanctity of life.
It has often been remarked that women are “more spiritual” than men, which sounds strange until you realize that that’s both a plus and a minus. There are all kinds of spirits. It was a woman—the church fathers call her the New Eve—who set our redemption in motion with her Fiat to Gabriel. It was women who first saw the resurrected Lord, and believed; the men were much “harder of heart.” But women have also been responsible for some of the craziest cults and errors in Christian history. When the so-called Spirit of Vatican II blew over Catholic religious orders, it was the nuns who were swept away into the wildest aberrations; the male religious were much more stable.
The modern world has tragically succeeded in convincing women that “sexual freedom”—that is, sexual lawlessness—affects men and women equally. But it’s the women who suffer from it, oh so disproportionately! We’re the ones who have our hearts broken, we’re the ones who become sterile or cancerous from venereal disease, we’re the ones who end up as single mothers on welfare, or grief-stricken over a baby released for adoption, or even with the blood of our own unborn child on our hands, while the man blithely goes his way, perhaps congratulating himself on his support for women’s rights—at least until his conscience and God’s judgment catch up with him.
And what does the modern world have to offer to protect women from all this suffering? Antibiotics, abortion, dangerous birth control drugs, and restraining orders. There’s a certain lack of proportion here between the disease and the medicine. The barbaric Jews and narrow-minded Christians are looking better all the time.
Women are by nature much more vulnerable than men both physically and emotionally, and no amount of legal or political tinkering is going to change that. Who do you think is more respected in her womanhood, more protected in her vulnerability, and more likely to have her emotional needs met: a modern woman trying to “have it all” by taking advantage of all the new lifestyle options, or a traditional Jewish or Christian woman who is at peace in her faith and part of a community of people trying (however imperfectly) to live by God’s commandments?
If we are open to it, we will often find great wisdom hidden in just those parts of the Old Testament that are at first most repugnant to us. Then, instead of being embarrassed by God’s Word or explaining it away, we can use it to discover the blind spots in our own vision, and so walk more steadily in the light.
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