Monday, June 4, 2012

Guest Post: What Does the Bible Say About Menstruation?

The following is a guest post from Brett Maiden, a PhD student in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University. He studies the Hebrew Bible and religions of the ancient Near East, and his current research explores the role of evolved cognitive architecture in shaping impurity laws and representations of divine agents.

In a hilariously provocative essay, Gloria Steinem ran an interesting thought experiment based on the hypothetical question “what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?” She surmised the following:
Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event. Men would brag about how long and how much…Generals, right-wing politicians, and religious fundamentalists would cite menstruation ("men-struation") as proof that only men could serve God and country in combat ("You have to give blood to take blood"), occupy high political office ("Can women be properly fierce without a monthly cycle governed by the planet Mars?"), be priests, ministers, God Himself ("He gave this blood for our sins"), or rabbis ("Without a monthly purge of impurities, women are unclean").
Despite Ms. Steinem’s gift for raising public consciousness through satire, this scenario clearly does not reflect the reality of our situation. Far from it. Even among highly industrialized western societies, menstruation and menstrual blood are topics quickly swept under the proverbial rug. For example, a substantial majority of U.S. adults and adolescents believe that it is socially unacceptable to discuss menstruation, even within the family. When it is mentioned, it is usually spoken of in familiar euphemisms (“on the rag” and “the curse”). This silence has led to feelings of horror and confusion and has perpetuated a general ignorance about menstrual bleeding. The feminist Simon de Beauvoir, in recalling the experience of her first period, wondered what “shameful malady I was suffering from.” Overall, therefore, there exists the unfortunate view among some—of both sexes—that menstruating women are impure and repulsive. The menstrual taboo has a long historical legacy and the Bible itself is not shy about tackling the “problem” of menstruation. Given the prominent position that this collection of books is accorded in our society as well as the number of people who claim to live by its literal interpretation, it is critical to examine what the Bible actually says about menstruation.

We begin our brief survey with the most complete discussion of menstrual impurity in the Bible, found in chapter 15 of the Book of Leviticus. This book is, from an academic perspective, one of the most interesting texts in the Bible, while at the same time one of the most troubling from the perspective of modern ethical sensibilities.

According to Leviticus 15:19-33, a menstruating woman is considered impure for seven days and contaminates anything upon which she sits or lies during that time. Anyone who touches her becomes impure. Anyone who touches anything she has contaminated becomes impure and they must wash their clothes, bathe in water, and remain impure until the evening. Moreover, intercourse with a menstruating woman causes a man to be impure for seven days, and anything he touches thereafter likewise becomes impure. Menstrual blood was thus considered exceedingly potent, to say the least. Lastly, it is worth noting that when a woman gives birth she is also “impure as at the time of her menstruation” (Lev 12:12-5). If she bears a male baby, she remains impure for 33 days. If she bears a female baby, the time is double.

Leviticus 20:18 (written by a different group of priestly authors than chapters 1-16) is more explicit and less lenient, “If a man lies with a woman having her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has uncovered her flow and she has uncovered her own flow of blood; both of them shall be cut off from their people.” The Hebrew word translated here as “sickness” is dawah, which also notably appears in Isaiah to denote filthy menstrual rags. Its use in Leviticus indicates that menstruation was viewed negatively as a repulsive illness. 

Similarly, the borderline psychotic prophet Ezekiel appeals to his audience’s disgust of menstrual blood in order to shift their emotional indignation to the problem of pagan idolatry: “Mortal, when the house of Israel lived on their own soil, they defiled it with their ways and their deeds; their conduct win my sight was like the uncleanness of a woman in her menstrual period (Ezek 36:17). The menstruant is commonly used throughout the Hebrew Bible as a metaphor for extreme pollution and utter revulsion (see Lamentations 1:17; Ezra 9:11).

The Jewish rabbis inherited this tradition of biblical regulations and engaged in extensive debates regarding the legal minutiae of menstrual impurity (niddah). The Babylonian Talmud (b. Ketubot 61a) declared that a menstruant may attend to all the needs of her household…that is, with the exception of filling her husband’s cup of wine, making his bed, and washing him (charitable concessions to the woman, indeed!). However, not all the sages were quite so generous. The Mishnah includes an entire tractate devoted to issues of female impurity. In this document, menstruating women were quarantined in a special chamber known as the “House for Impure Women” (m. Nid. 7:4; b. Nid. 56b). Rabbi Akiba referred to menstruants as galmudah, “segregated,” while others held that it was forbidden to eat with them (t. Ċ abbat 1:14). Another text states that “if a menstruant woman passes between two men, if it is at the beginning of her menses, she will slay one of them, and it if is at the end of her menses, she will cause strife between them” (b. Pesah. 111a). Finally, the Jewish sage Nahmanides (aka Ramban) states that the breath of a menstruating woman is harmful and her gaze detrimental.

I, myself, cannot help but think that this whole discussion represents an unfortunate example of misspent human energy.  

We can also get a glimpse of what life was like for women in ancient Israel from non-biblical sources. For example, one text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls known as the Temple Scroll envisions the construction of a utopian Jewish temple accompanied by maximum standards of purity. In this idyllic world it is decreed: “And in every city you shall allot places…for women during their menstrual impurity and after giving birth, so that they may not defile in their midst with their menstrual impurity” (11Q Temple 48:14-17). The Jewish historian Josephus also testifies that menstruants were quarantined for seven days (Antiquities 3.261).

Of course, such superstitious attitudes toward menstruating women and blood were not confined to ancient Israel. In Mesopotamia, a menstruating woman is referred to by the term musukkatu, and it is said: “If a man touches a musukkatu woman who is passing by, for six days he will not be pure.” In ancient Egypt, menstruating women are included among the most severe religious prohibitions (bwt), the violation of which constituted an act of cosmic and lethal personal consequences. In Islam, the Qur’an declares: “They question thee (O Muhammad) concerning menstruation. Say it is an illness so let women alone at such times and go not into them until they are cleansed” (2:222). (Incidentally, you need look only a few verses later to uncover this paragon of gender equity: “Women are like fields for you, so seed them as you intend”). Lastly, the Roman Pliny embodies the revulsion which we have been discussing as he writes:
Contact with the monthly flux of women turns new wine sour, makes crops wither, kills grafts, dries seeds in gardens, causes the fruit of trees to fall off, dims the bright surface of mirrors, dulls the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory, kills bees, rusts iron and bronze, and causes a horrible smell to fill the air. Dogs who taste the blood become mad, and their bite becomes poisonous as in rabies. (Natural History 7.64)
One wonders about the rigorous scientific methods by which Pliny ever collected such data.

So here we stand now in the twenty-first century, in an age of unparalleled scientific and medical advancement. And yet the menstrual taboo remains one of the most pernicious and persistent cultural phenomena to this day. My intention is that this survey of cultural and religious attitudes, while far from being comprehensive, provides a clear picture of precisely where a modern fear of menstrual blood originated. We may no longer believe that menstruating women are capable of withering crops or necessitate quarantining, but society continues to view menstruation in a generally negative light. Would it not promote a healthier society if, as writer Karen Houppert proposes, we were to regard menstruation more like sneezing or having a cold? Or better yet, why not conceptualize menstruation as something positive, powerful, and life-giving? We currently bear the cultural and psychological burden of ancient religious laws, and we should be eager to pay off this onerous debt.

Sarah Maple. Menstruate with Pride. 2012.

9 comments:

  1. As long as women explain away rude, emotional behavior with "I'm sorry... I'm on my period," it will have a negative connotation.

    I agree that sneezing is a much better analogy than the paranoid ideas the bible puts forward. But getting sneezed on isn't that appealing either.

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    1. I am a woman, and I have never explained away rude or emotional behavior with "I'm sorry...I'm on my period." I've also never heard a woman do that. Have you?

      If a woman did explain emotional behavior from hormones because she was menstruating, that still doesn't require a negative connotation.

      I'm actually not a huge fan of the sneezing analogy. I much prefer to focus on the positive, life-giving aspect of menstruation. Besides, I don't think you need to worry very much about someone menstruating on you.

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    2. http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/premenstrual-syndrome.cfm#c

      I have two older sisters. So yes, I've heard this rationalization before. That's not to say I could easily handle the monthly burden every fertile woman does. I just recognize it as a burden, not a blessing, to women. That's why I think forms of birth control that claim "Only 3 periods a year" are increasingly appealing to young women.

      Anyway, I agree with the general premise that people shouldn't take the "lessons" of the bible literally. There's a plethora of anti-woman ideas promoted (mostly in a few books in the Old Testament).

      I just think that menstruation is a pain for most women, its signal of life-giving ability notwithstanding. Women should be appreciated for dealing with that pain; it shouldn't be rebranded as something positive simply because it's a pain that only women endure. Just my $0.02.

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    3. That is a fair point. But I think that the idea of it as a pain largely comes from cultural constructions of it as negative.

      Although, of course, every woman is different. I'm sure it is physically painful and difficult for many women. And they should be appreciated for dealing with that pain.

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  2. The writer is a very evolved male. I commend him on his analysis, understanding, and sympathy of this topic. This should be viewed a power, the power to recreate the man of of ages that wrote these crude descriptions. It is easy to understand how an earlier species of human could think this way but the current generation is still lacking in its view. I can argue that on the 5th or 7th day, a woman's gaze is menacing but not detrimental. It will take another generation of thinking on this topic to chip away at the stereotype. I have seen commercials which show women biking, swimming, dancing and carrying on normal life while menstruating. Interesting? are we making progress.

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  3. does being on the pill changing a woman's period make her less of a woman or more masculine

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    1. Being on the pill can make a woman's period shorter. And there is estrogen in it. But it doesn't make her less of a woman or more masculine.

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  5. Keep in mind the Bible was written thousands of years ago and scientific knowledge was nil back then. It is very sexist, I agree, and outdated. But For all they knew, menstrual blood was dirty since they did not have the knowledge we have today.

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