Orthodox Jewish women faced with a pandemic dilemma: purify themselves after menstruation in a communal pool, or disobey their G-d

April 20, 2020 • 1:45 pm

This article in The Atlantic discusses a dilemma that shouldn’t exist in a rational world—a world without faith and, in this case, without the attendant and ridiculous notion that menstruating women are unclean. Read and weep:

For many Orthodox Jews, a menstruating woman is described as being in the state of “niddah“, which means that she’s sexually impure. As Green says in her article above,

Each month, when they get their period, some Jewish women observe a time of niddah, or ritual impurity. As long as they’re bleeding, and often for at least a week afterward, they can’t have sex with their partner. Many couples won’t hug or kiss, sleep in the same bed, or even pass objects to each other. Under any circumstances, this can be challenging to maintain. Imagine what it’s like under quarantine.

She remains “impure” until her period ends and she immerses herself in a ritual bath called a mikveh, a small, lukewarm bath holding one person. The requirements for that pool are stringent (see here), and include the use of rainwater, though a small amount of tap water is permitted. Mikvehs are also used to prepare a bride for a wedding and to immerse a non-Jew undergoing the onerous conversion to Judaism. And until you dunk yourself after your period, you can’t have sex with your husband.

Here’s what a mikveh looks like:

View of a luxury mikveh (ritual bath) for women, in the Israeli settlement of Alon Shvut on August 25, 2015. A mikveh is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Photo by Gershon Elinson/FLASH90


So you can understand the issue: right now, these things are not something you want to touch, much less immerse yourself in. There’s water, railings, preparation rooms, and so on. And even though some mikvehs ruthlessly sanitize the spaces, wiping down the railings and using chemicals in the water, it’s not something I’d want to dip into once a month.  And there are the religious requirements. As the article notes,

The mikvah dilemma is especially excruciating for women who are trying to get pregnant. If they don’t immerse after their period, they can’t have sex, meaning that they may have to delay conceiving. For most women who observe niddah, skipping immersion and having sex anyway is likely out of the question: “It would be like eating pig,” Bat Sheva Marcus, an Orthodox Jewish sex therapist, told me. Since the pandemic started, social media has been flooded with women debating what to do about immersion. “It’s wrenching,” Marcus said. “Do something that you feel religiously not okay with, or do something that makes you feel unsafe? Neither of those are good options. They’re terrible options.” The pandemic has already created immense challenges for women struggling with infertility: In mid-March, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine issued new guidelines advising doctors to suspend new IVF cycles and cancel elective surgeries and embryo transfers. For women who want to be pregnant, the mikvah can be another reminder that they are not. “My community is in a tremendous amount of pain,” said Baron, the Riverdale mom, who leads an online community for women dealing with fertility issues.

Well, they can eliminate the pain by suspending this ridiculous requirement, and the attendant Biblical notion that menstruating women are “impure”—at least for the duration of the pandemic. Remember, too, that Orthodox Jews have been violating the quarantine requirements big time, regularly gathering for Sabbath worship, weddings and funerals. In some ways they are more resistant to legal requirements that contravene their faith than are evangelical Christians. Here’s a quote:

 Although people outside of the Orthodox community might say that these women should just stay home, going to the mikvah is not optional in the way that praying together in synagogue or attending family gatherings is, according to Ruth Balinsky Friedman, a clergywoman at Ohev Shalom, an Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C. “I very much understand the impulse to see religion as more symbolic—something that we do when we’re able to, but in a time of crisis, we put aside,” she told me. But “you can’t cancel” the commandments governing sex, she said. “That’s the word of God.”

Well, the Hebrew G_d has always been vengeful compared to the New Testament God, even though they’re the same one. You can say that G_d should understand that a shower at home should be sufficient, during these troubled times, to make you fit for sex, and so you don’t have to endanger yourself. But hey, it’s YAHWEH, Jake! He makes the rules!

h/t: Chris

60 thoughts on “Orthodox Jewish women faced with a pandemic dilemma: purify themselves after menstruation in a communal pool, or disobey their G-d

    1. He’s a dck probably, given his supposed aversion to vowels? (Autocorrect really wanted him to be a duck – just shows artificial intelligence doesn’t necessarily equate to actual intelligence. On second thoughts, there are many duck worshippers here at WEIT, so maybe it had a point!)

      1. I really don’t know what the people who insist on writing “God” as G-d” are thinking (I assume Jerry does it ironically). Do they really think that changing the middle letter of the word to a hyphen is going to fool Her?

        Maybe she uses some very simple text search tool to discover transgressions, in which case, I recommend a regular expression: /\sG[o-]d\s/

  1. The requirements for that pool are stringent (see here), and include the use of rainwater, though a small amount of tap water is permitted.

    Is it wrong that my first thought was “maybe I should start a business selling bottled rainwater”?

    1. I collect rainwater in barrels for my fish tanks. I even store it over winter. I could up production and make a fortune though I don’t know if they’d want to buy from some unclean woman that may or may not be menstruating. You’d have more luck. Maybe we can go into business together and you can be the frontman.

      1. I am perfectly happy to act as a pass-through for 5%. 🙂

        Actually, this set-up would be sort of the karmic balance to many government contracts. Instead of the small, minority-owned business acting as a pass-through for a more traditional pale stale male-controlled corporation, we’ll be doing the opposite. 🙂

    2. You could always unload your bottled rainwater on the Gen. Jack D. Ripper “preciously bodily fluids” market:

    3. My only water source is rainwater.
      It’s collected off my roof, passes into gutters and pipes and transferred into a plastic rainwater tank. From thence it’s piped – by gravity – from the tank into my home where it exits through a tap.
      Is it rainwater or tapwater?

    4. If they saw the contents of the bottom of most farm rainwater tanks they might change their opinion. (Though I doubt rationality has much to do with 2000+ years of traditional stupidity).

      What I find odd is that any tapwater is permitted at all. Most ‘purity’ fetishes are more about keeping out alleged impurities (which would seem to dictate NO tapwater) than including the ‘good’ ingredients (the bottom sludge of a rainwater tank?).

      But Judaism does seem to rationalise things in bizarre and nonsensical ways.


  2. I find that more and more I am turning to that cathartic utterance, “Oh, for fuck’s sake!”

    Larry Smith

    1. Yes, uommibatto, that is a reasonable reaction to most news today. My reaction, however, is usually more along the lines of “We’re screwed!”

  3. Did anyone see Unorthadox on Netflix? Miniseries on escaping from a NY ultraorthadox sect. Worth a look.

  4. According to the sages of the Talmud, this sort of thing is a false issue. As Wiki reports it:

    “Pikuach nefesh (Hebrew: פיקוח נפש, IPA: [piˈkuaχ ˈnefeʃ], “saving a life”)[1] is the principle in Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious rule. When the life of a specific person is in danger, almost any mitzvah lo ta’aseh (command to not do an action) of the Torah becomes inapplicable.

    … In the Babylonian Talmud, Chapter 82a of Tractate Yoma mentions pregnancy cravings for non-kosher food (the passage discusses a pregnant woman who craves pork on Yom Kippur) as the paradigmatic example of a presumed life-threatening situation where a person is allowed to eat non-kosher food (and is permitted to eat it on Yom Kippur).

    …With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many religious authorities have supported the concept of social distancing, even overriding the requirement to pray in a minyan (prayer quorum) and other religious mandates through livestreaming.[21][22]”

    1. If that were true, it would be great. But, apparently to the ultraorthodox in the story the idea had to be debated. So, it may not be universally accepted within that community, otherwise, why debate at all? Are you suggesting that some religions….gasp….cherry-pick their beliefs?

      1. Long ago, the ultra-orthodox had to wrestle with the knotty problem of insulin treatment for diabetes. After all, until rather recently, insulin was purified from pigs, the most non-kosher source imaginable. However, a Chabad sage of Halakhic Law solved the problem as follows:

        “Taking shots made of porcine product does not pose any problem whatsoever. We are forbidden to orally ingest pork, but may benefit from non-kosher foods or their byproducts in other ways.1 This applies to non-medical areas as well, such as playing football with a pigskin ball, or wearing clothing made of leather which comes from a non-kosher animal.”

    2. I came here to say “for crying out loud, Pikuach Nefesh people!!!” Thanks for beating me to it. Only the 7 Noahide laws are exempt and immersion into a tepid bath ain’t one of them.

  5. I guess with no “render unto Caesar…” the Jews are more likely not to give a crap about secular rules like social distancing.

  6. This is so unbelievably sick that it turns my stomach. However, I’m curious — mightn’t the Talmud have advice for just this problem?

    Given the zealotry some deep-end Tridentine Catholics profess, I’m awaiting a latter-day St. Catherine of Siena, who kissed and licked pus from lepers’ wounds. Oh, this reminds me of the Muslim men in Iran who were licking silver grates and rails in a mosque.

  7. I don’t know my Bible as well as I might, especially the bit that I was brought up to call the Old Testament (but what the CofE now insists is the ‘Hebrew Scriptures’). Is this nonsense prescribed anywhere in it? The Wikipedia article itself says:

    ‘Most forms of ritual impurity can be purified through immersion in any natural collection of water’.

    So why can’t they just have a nice warm bath at home?

  8. Another glaring example that reveals the Abrahamic religions were created by men (perhaps ALL religions were created by men).

      1. Indeed. Might be cool if there were gods though. At least Greek-like gods who were like we petty humans and didn’t fancy themselves Omni-everything. Heads swelled when man’s gods became omni. Bad development, that.

        1. There’s an interesting quote, something like : the more one studies gods and religion, the more clear it is that man is in love with no one but himself.

          It’s not easy finding this quote because Google appears to produce results that are all religion-saturated. I even learned a new word : aseity : self-existence – from little Google-crafted info thumbnails. Google even asked *me* what question I am asking, to share anonymously with “online publishers” – is Google being used like a confessional booth, so it thinks that’s what I’m doing?

          I’d anyone can help track down the quote, let me know.

  9. All religions WERE created by men, that’s why they are ALL misogynist to a greater or lesser extent. They all seek to keep women subjugated and powerless in the same way that they have been treated in the secular world for millennia. A reader commented above that he couldn’t understand why any “self-respecting woman” would put up with it. It’s got nothing to do with self-respect. They have been inculcated from birth with this rubbish and taught that they are inferior and worthless. Men will never understand what it’s like to be female in this world.

    1. Everyone has been inculcated from birth. It’s a constant, explaining nothing. And nobody understands what it is like to be something they aren’t. Another constant explaining nothing.

        1. Sorry, Susan, but this really isn’t a place where empathy is relevant. I’m among those who detest religion, in large part because of its oppressive nature regarding women. But railing against the patriarchy holds little value. This is a human problem.

          Self respect is involved. It is a form of respect, which is lacking across the board.

          1. Well it’s certainly a problem for women, but not a problem for men which is why it has been ever thus and it will remain ever thus until women have the power to change it. Self respect cannot emerge when you have been taught all your life that you are inferior and worthless. Railing against injustice is just about the only thing that, in the end, changes the status quo. If nobody speaks up, nothing changes. If men spoke up things would change tout suite.

    2. And, equally, women will never understand what it’s like to be male, in this or any other world.

      And, yes, it is all milk and honey, and roses too.

      That’s what the 19,000 British soldiers killed and 57,000 wounded in ONE day back in WW1 were thinking too.

      Maybe those ladies shoving white flowers at men and boys may not have been so keen to do so had they known.

      And, I don’t think ALL religions were designed to keep women ‘powerless’.

  10. The ultra-orthodox Jewish woman is to be pitied, especially now. The long gone Essenes were even more rigid. Although some sources insist that Essene males lived in Qumran as ascetics without women, others indicate that some had wives who lived in a separate community. And, the rules for them to get together were unbelievably stringent. I would direct you to the correct Nag Hammadi reference, if I could remember which one it was.

  11. Some human beings worshipped goddesses, such as an earth goddess, before there were male gods. I don’t know who to blame for creating them. The Jewish god used to either have a wife or a female component to his/her being. Unfortunately, she got lost. In addition,
    Sophia, or wisdom, who was feminine, was once considered to be either associated with or was an attribute of the Jewish god.

      1. The trouble as always, is that it won’t be only those women who die (or get sick), but all those they infect, including even people who don’t believe a word of all the religiously-dictated BS.

        Exactly like the idiots in the tRump-inspired ‘protests’.


    1. I don’t know that transmission through water has been demonstrated (could be wrong). The problem is everything else and anyone else they contact on the way.

      (But you’re right about chlorination in general).


  12. My Jewish (atheist) wife tells me that Jews are allowed to disregard the idiotic “laws” of their imaginary sky monster if doing so would lead to their death. I would think this situation would qualify for that exception.

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