Sex and Taboos in Orthodox Judaism

In the past, I’ve poked fun at the Catholic church for the logical contortions it goes through to get around the problems it creates for itself with its nonsensical decrees about sex. But the Catholics are far from the only sect that has laughably ridiculous rules about sex, nor are they the only sect that goes to absurd ends to get around the problems those rules create. So, today I’m going to write about a particularly hilarious example which, like the last one, I first heard about from my lovely and talented wife.

The example I intend to discuss is a bizarre problem, specific to Orthodox Jews, called “halakhic infertility”. It takes a little effort to explain what this is, but bear with me – I promise it’s worth it.

According to Orthodox Jewish law (halakha, in Hebrew), women become niddah – that is to say, ritually unclean – at the onset of their menstrual period. (Because, you know, God is just absolutely disgusted by those bodily functions that he created.) An observant Jewish husband is prohibited from having sex with his wife while she’s niddah. In fact, he’s prohibited from touching her in any way, which even includes sitting on the same couch as her, passing a plate to her, or sleeping in the same bed with her.

After her menstrual bleeding has completely stopped, an Orthodox woman must wait seven full days before immersing herself in a mikveh, a ritual bath which removes the taint of uncleanliness. After that, she and her husband can touch each other again. But the problem is this: Some women have very regularly timed periods in which ovulation occurs early in the cycle, around the 12th day. Depending on how long the bleeding from her previous cycle lasts, if you add in the mandatory seven-day wait, it may be that the only time she’s fertile is during the period of ritual uncleanliness when she’s not permitted to have sex. Hence, “halakhic infertility” (see also). Basically, these families are inadvertently using the rhythm method!

As you can imagine, this dilemma is a source of considerable awkwardness and embarrassment to Orthodox clergy. Why don’t they just change the rule and shorten the waiting period? Because of a belief in Orthodox Judaism that older rabbis, being closer in time to God’s original revelation, always knew better than modern rabbis and can never be overruled. This also leads to other hilarity, like the belief that it’s OK to eat a worm in your apple, despite the Torah ordinarily outlawing the consumption of crawling things, because ancient rabbis believed the worm was spontaneously generated inside the apple. The fact that we know more biology now than the people who originally made that rule doesn’t matter at all.

So how do the Orthodox deal with this? These two articles from the website Jewish Women’s Health discuss possible solutions. One solution that they suggest is for the woman to take clomiphene, a fertility drug, or other hormones that can delay ovulation. IVF is cited as another possibility. Of course, hormone therapy may increase the woman’s risk of cancer, and IVF can be very expensive, but both these problems are viewed as trivial next to the consequences of disobeying the ruling of a religious authority who died hundreds or thousands of years ago.

If these seem a bit drastic, one more solution they propose is that women can bathe earlier than they think, depending on what does or doesn’t count as bleeding. As the site suggests, “Some women are embarrassed to approach a rabbi with intimate questions about their staining” (gee, you think?) and therefore delay the mikveh longer than they have to. Another common piece of advice for women is to wear black underwear so they’re less likely to notice a blood spot (why God doesn’t consider this cheating, I have no idea). But the absolute height of theological genius comes in the form of the following sentence, which I swear I’m not making up: “Women may also be unaware that rabbis are able to rule leniently regarding certain shades of brown…”

Certain shades of brown. How does this work, inquiring minds want to know? Are there official color swatches that rabbis can use to compare and contrast when a woman brings in her stained underwear for inspection? If your rabbi has red-green color blindness and thinks a blood stain is just a green polka dot, is it OK to have sex then, even if the woman herself knows differently? (I wouldn’t be surprised if some esteemed and elderly theologian has actually addressed that question, but frankly, I don’t want to know, so I’m not going to Google it.)

More so than any other religion, Judaism has preserved intact the primitive taboos of the past. These rules were self-evidently invented by men who suffered from such a crippling fear of contamination, they felt it essential to go to these extreme lengths to avoid contact with even one microscopic particle of blood. All the later elaborations spring from this irrational terror, which many centuries later is still causing difficulty and misery for the families who think they’re doing God’s will by obeying it. Like all people with nonsensical beliefs, they’d be much better off if they were willing to discard these foolish rules and try living in the real world instead.

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  • JSL

    As an ex-athiest and BT Orthodox Jew, I find this article lacking. What “considerable awkwardness” among Rabbis are you referring too? There are many ways to get pregnant that are against halakha and that is not some recent revelation nor reason for the laws to be violated. Clearly, reproduction overall is not a problem in the Orthodox world as average family size data would show. You mentioned the apple in the worm and that Jews that are closer to Mt Sinai’s rulings can never be overruled is simply wrong. Yes, they are given serious weight and over ruling them is not something done lightly, but the are numerous examples of Poseks doing this. Judaism does not reject science, but looks at it as a method to study G_d’s creation. The Torah is a guide to living, both written and oral, and while it contains much history, its not a history or science fact book. That type of fundamentalism is simply not what Orthodox Judaism believes or teaches. Shalom.