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.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    …and there was me thinking crossing the “red sea” was a Jewish tradition.

  • kennypo65

    What absolute nonsense! I have an orthodox friend who told me that if one removes the god references, the Halakha laws really are about preventing disease. I will grant that pork can carry trichinosis, but if this is true then why is there no requirement to do the single best thing to prevent disease–wash your fucking hands after going to the toilet? That is not mentioned anywhere, and Yahweh would know about germs, assuming he created them and that he exists.

    The stupid…it burns!

  • http://journal.nearbennett.com Rick

    Seems clear enough to me that God’s will is that these women should not procreate.

    Seriously though, I try very hard to not read about kosher and halal rules. They just make me irritable at how batshit stoopid this stuff is.

  • Kogo

    Hi. Former Lubavitcher here. Thanks for posting this.

    You have to at least give the rabbis credit: Unlike most other religions, that would be (or should be) embarrassed to be caught in a ridiculous exercise like this the rabbis explicitly created an entire *genre* of literature in which they would be explicitly permitted to Just Make It Up As They Go Along.

    *I have an orthodox friend who told me that if one removes the god references, the Halakha laws really are about preventing disease. I will grant that pork can carry trichinosis…*

    Oy. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a variation on this one, I’d have, I dunno, 20 or 30 dollars. It’s the little non-insight that observant Jews like to trot out and pretend it’s so fucking profound.

    The ancient Israelites had NO FUCKING CLUE what trichinosis was or how one caught it. Same for any other foodborne illness. If avoiding foodborne illness was the goal, then yeah, a rule about washing your hands would’ve been good. Heck, if you believe Jared Diamond, then NOT having domestic animals around is what makes a population sick(er). Or, contrariwise, if you eat NO meat, you’re less likely to get sick. (Trichinosis is nasty, but the things you can get from a nice rare beefsteak are terrifying. I’ll take trichinosis over the untreatable brain-eating prions that can live in a hamburger any day.)

    Pork prohibition had everything to do with the Israelites marking themselves off as a distinct people. They had NO secret knowledge of infectious diseases.

  • Kogo

    Oh and also: Trichinosis is unbelievably unharmful and unepidemic. A quick trip over to PubMed tells me: minimal food preparation cautions–i.e. either freezing meat or cooking it thoroughly–are more than adequate to reduce the risk to effectively zero. There are something like 10-20 cases of trichinosis in the entire U.S. population every year. And the mortality rate is low. Something like 10% of all cases involve life-threatening symptoms like fever and the actual rate of *mortality* is so low as to be difficult to calculate.

    So yeah, if avoiding trichinosis is the great secret reason behind god’s invention of the whole kashrut system, then god has ridiculous priorities.

  • Eric

    I’d heard about this odd sort of infertility before. Given that sperm take a while to get to the fallopian tubes and can live there a day or two, those last couple days of being “unclean” are peak fertility days.

    I am reminded of couples in sitcoms who are trying to conceive. The whole “we have to have sex now, I’m ovulating” thing is inaccurate. Would have been better off doing it yesterday or the day before.

    As for pork taboos, Marvin Harris explains it pretty well. In a wetter climate, pigs can be raised semi-feral at almost no cost, just like in Old Yeller. In an arid climate, pigs need shelter, water, and feed. Pigs are tasty and efficient, but there are environmental costs to keeping them in a dry area. Thus there is a taboo against them. Harris also says cows are sacred in India and horse meat is taboo in the US for similar reasons of environmental logic. I highly recommend Harris’ book Cannibals and Kings.

  • Leum

    I have an orthodox friend who told me that if one removes the god references, the Halakha laws really are about preventing disease.

    This isn’t a universal opinion. I’ve read other Orthodox sources who say that trying to pin down non-spiritual reasons for the ritual (as opposed to ethical) halakha rules takes away their power. The law is to be obeyed because you don’t necessarily know why it’s there.

    More broadly, the rabbis recognize three kinds of law. The kind that you would know to obey even without Torah; the kind you wouldn’t know to obey without Torah, but once you know it’s there, it makes sense to obey it; and the kind that you have no friggin’ idea why it’s there but obey it anyway.

  • L.Long

    You can still go among other groups (Sheri Lanka) where the men have this extreme fear of women menstruation and they are not jew. Many non-jew cultures have the menstruation taboos .. Anthro101. It is all based on an ignorant (not stupid) fear from way back when blood was associated with life force and magic.

  • jane hay

    Among a lot of American Indian tribes, isolating menstruating women in a special hut at the edge of the village was common. You didn’t want her coming into contact with any of your specially spiritually empowered war stuff (shields, pipes,etc.) ’cause it would negate the “power” therein and leave you vulnerable. Definitely some primitive tribal stuff there – just what I want influencing my 21st century religious beliefs ! Navahoes also have a lot of fear of coming into contact with the dead in any way. Special ceremonies have to be performed to cleanse those who have killed in battle or had to bury a loved one.

  • Alex Weaver

    …has the Orthodox community run out of maidservants?

  • Ryan Donahue

    Adam, You also have to consider when someone does IVF, they are essentially having involuntary abortions. I believe I remember reading from Dawkins’ “God Delusion” talking about the hypocrisy of Christians that get IVF procedures yet protest abortion. I’m no doctor, but I remember reading that during an IVF procedure, they fertilize multiple eggs at once and insert them. Logically one egg wins the war and gets implanted while the rest fail. I’m not sure were the Jews stand on abortion, but that’s another unavoidable “sin”.

  • Charles Black

    The thing I don’t understand is that assuming that God created us, why would that same God want us to be ashamed of our bodies.
    Oh yeah it doesn’t make sense because it’s religion.

  • Alex Weaver

    If you’d spec’d a toxic waste pipeline through a recreational area, would you want to be constantly reminded of it?

  • jemand

    Seriously? IVF is the solution, but a man just filling a turkey baster and “accidentally” leaving it on the bathroom counter is right out?

    Religion. Makes no sense.

  • karen

    I don’t know whether this is more ridiculous or more disgusting an issue. It’s kind of a toss-up.

    In terms of ridiculous, this actually trumps the workarounds from Orthodoxy exposed by Bill Mahr in Religulous, like planting above ground, etc.

    How crazy are people, seriously?

  • Lagerbaer

    In the same way that heaven and hell is Santa for grown ups, the whole uncleanliness shtick is “girl cooties” for grown ups.

  • Athro Kevin

    Well hopefully halakhic infertility leads to less people who think like this among us. What is funny to me is that religous people constantly argue the concept that given time and pressure (in geologic terms) anything is possible. Mountains built, oceans formed. But given time and pressure (in religous terms) they practice otherwise insane rituals that have no logical significance other than that it was what was done before them.

  • TFM

    @ #11 Ryan – FYI, multiple embryos (or blastocysts) transferred by IVF don’t do battle with each other to see who implants, any more than two (or more) embryos are at war to implant when natural twins or higher-order multiples occur. Whether it’s because of only having one viable embryo to transfer, or ethical concerns by the woman/couple having them transferred, it’s not unheard of to only transfer one embryo in an IVF cycle. The reason that people more commonly transfer two or three (and freeze any leftovers) is a combination of increasing the chances that *at least* one will implant, and the high cost of each IVF cycle. It’s not just expensive, but also uncomfortable (weeks of daily injections), stressful (will it work?!), and time-consuming (fertility decreases with age, so each failed cycle is more time off the clock). All-around, it’s a much less pleasant way to go about getting pregnant than the usual way, which is why it sounds ridiculous for someone who’s not actually infertile to consider it.

    None of this undermines what I think your basic point is, which is that many pro-life Christians make self-serving exceptions to their religious ethics when it comes to their own fertility treatments. That’s true. As an atheist among many Christian infertile people in online support groups, though, I did encounter a few Christians who would only make or transfer one embryo per attempt, in keeping with their religious beliefs, and/or plan on eventually transferring excess embryos in future cycles so that none would “be destroyed”. It’s not the cheapest or most efficient way to make IVF work, and I sure wouldn’t recommend it, but it is possible for some kinds of religious objections to be reconciled with IVF.

    I think treating “halakhic infertility” with IVF is sort of like spraying an unlit book of matches with a fire hose, because it’s not a real problem that requires a drastic solution. However, I don’t see any inherent ethical contradiction in it for someone who thinks it counts as infertility. I contrast that with Catholics who use any fertility treatment (not just IVF), of whom I’ve known many, that typically find ways to clear their own conscience about it, but there’s no way to reconcile it with the Church’s clear and unambiguous stance on these matters. Occasionally, I detect hypocrisy, but more often, they just selectively delude themselves by not consulting church authority, or making it one of many areas in which they feel fine picking and choosing which parts of Catholic dogma to agree with and which to ignore.

    @ #14 jemand – I don’t know what size turkey basters you’re using that a man could fill up, but if you think it would in any way resemble IVF as an effective fertility treatment, I’m glad you weren’t our fertility doc. Also, consider yourself banned from my kitchen. Especially if we’re having turkey. ;)

  • jemand

    @TFM, but… I mean… link:

    http://www.babymed.com/home-artificial-insemination-get-pregnant-turkey-baster-method

    If there is ADDITIONAL infertility of any sort, than IVF would be necessary, but it seems in this case sex WOULD have worked if they could have had it, and faking sex just means getting semen in the right place. Which really shouldn’t require lots of hormones and expensive techniques! I wasn’t being serious about *actual* turkey basters lol

  • TFM

    I was just jokin’ back, jemand. You might be surprised, though, how many people actually think turkey basters are a standard tool for artificial insemination. It’s one of those infertility myths usually played for yucks in TV and movies, like all the hilarity that ensues from sperm donors thinking they’ve been asked to actually have sex with the woman who wants to get pregnant.

    Sorry for the tangent…let’s see if I can bring it back around…I agree that there are many fertility treatments short of IVF which would seem to get around the “problem” of halakhic infertility, but I do like the idea in the OP about going to color-blind rabbis to judge the shades of brown. If you can’t find one, I wonder if some judiciously applied food coloring would break any rules. How about only looking at underwear in bad lighting so all spots look brown? And speaking of rules, what’s the correct protocol for arranging rabbinical spot check? It really does raise a lot of funny-yucky (funky?) questions.

  • Ryan Donahue

    Thanks for clearing that up TFM!

  • MHB

    @#13 Alex Weaver
    Two problems with your analogy. (You knew this was coming!)

    1. Menstrual blood is not toxic, or unnatural, or any more disgusting than your own bodily fluids that you would likely be perfectly willing to dump into that woman’s “recreational facility”.

    2. Just to be clear, you do not own and run that “recreational facility”, any more than bronze-age rabbis did. What goes into or comes out of it has never been and never will be up to you.

    Sorry for the sarcasm. Just had to be said.

  • David Dunn

    I had an Orthodox Jewish nurse friend (don’t know exactly which sect) who wore a wig at work because nobody but her husband could see her hair. I asked her if she didn’t think it odd that g-d didn’t mind people seeing her in fake hair, though. She was hip enough to know that it didn’t make any sense, but she did it to keep hubby and family happy.

  • Michael J.

    I began my journey into Atheism at a very young age, 16… Soon after my Bar Mitzvah, when, because my parents hadn’t payed their dues at the Temple, and they wouldn’t let me in to observe the ‘High Holy Days’ way back in 1960. Then I began to read, and I began to realized that the ‘Laws’ were created by ignorant, near ‘Stone Age’ old men seaking only to increase their fanatical control of the uneducated masses of people, and that the ‘Laws’ were created only to increase the population. They created the laws about sexuality because… what better way is there to control people, but then to control their sex lives? In the future, the Catholic church would pick up that mantle and push it even further, resulting in HUGE families, often with so many children that they couldn’t even be fed, and families were forced to live in dreadful conditions. In Judaism, thank ghod, it didn’t work, except for the ‘Orthodox’ who refused to throw off the ridiculous, ancient ‘Laws’. Women must cover their heads with wigs, Oh, Boy, so that only their husbands and Ghod could see them; The sexual act must be performed through a hole in a sheet, Giggle, giggle, because a husband could not see his wife naked, only ghod had that priviledge; Geebus fucking Chrust! Women were dirty during their Menstrual cycle, and could not be touched by their husband for fear of ‘Cooties’….. BULLSHIT! That law alone was created for one reason and one reason only. To increase the population! Those old ‘Stone Age’ men had figured out that women could not become pregnant during their periods, and therefore set about to make sexual congress during that time impossible, by making women ‘dirty’. It didn’t really work, did it, since Jews today occupy only 1 tenth of 1 percent of the world’s population. When I was a young man I once found my mother’s pamphlet about the Mikvah. It infuriated me, I destroyed it and confronted her about it….. explaining that it was dead wrong and that women were not ‘DIRTY’ and that a woman’s menstrual cycle was mere biology. I was just beginning college, and studying Biology. Years later, my wife & I used to enjoy making love during her ‘lighter’ days, without having to use condoms, specifically, because we knew that she could not become pregnant during her period…because there was no birth-control pill in those early days of our marriage. So folks, relax, throw off the stupid ‘Laws’ controlling the enjoyment of your lives, and try living life as an Atheist. Much fewer stupid rules, much less guilt, the same Morals, because morals are based on human interaction, & not handed down from some ‘Sky Daddy’ There is no Ghod…… so relax and enjoy life, it’s the only one you’re likely ever going to have………….

  • Michael J.

    So, how do my wife and I now celebrate our Judaism at age 67???? Well, all of the Holidays involve gatherings of families and friends, with huge amounts of delicious food. So even if we all realize that there really is no Ghod….. we all still have a glorious time eating and socializing. Good-night, Sky-Daddy………… ;-O

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    In all fairness to Orthodox Jews and their ridiculous laws, the hole-in-the-sheet thing is a myth. Which isn’t to say they don’t have other, real beliefs that are just as absurd.

  • Alex Weaver

    @#13 Alex Weaver
    Two problems with your analogy. (You knew this was coming!)

    1. Menstrual blood is not toxic, or unnatural, or any more disgusting than your own bodily fluids that you would likely be perfectly willing to dump into that woman’s “recreational facility”.

    2. Just to be clear, you do not own and run that “recreational facility”, any more than bronze-age rabbis did. What goes into or comes out of it has never been and never will be up to you.

    Sorry for the sarcasm. Just had to be said.

    What.

    The.

    FUCK?

    1) You will immediately inform me where in my post I said anything to the effect of “owning” or “controlling goes into or out of” anything or apologize in no uncertain terms.

    2) Oh for crying out loud…

    I will grant that the joke might be obscure enough that not recognizing it might be excusable. The idiotically uncharitable interpretation of my post or intentions is not. [EDIT]Actually, the apparent presumption of misogyny you’re addressing goes beyond simply being “uncharitable.” How do you manage to make up an obviously generic prepackaged interpretation out of whole cloth, anyway?[/EDIT]

    (I’m aware that this is strongly worded. This is in deference to the probably vain hope that getting your fingers burned by reading contrived stereotypes into others’ comments in this sort of fashion will inspire you to respond to what people have actually said in the future.)

  • Alex Weaver

    …on reflection, I will concede that perhaps I erred in assuming it would be obvious I was riffing on the major line from the post immediately preceding mine, quoted below:

    The thing I don’t understand is that assuming that God created us, why would that same God want us to be ashamed of our bodies.

  • Betsy R

    I read this stuff about the “niddah” days and menstrual taboos. When I read too much into the supporting texts, I wonder if there is another religion concerned as much with vaginal and penile emissions as Judaism? What a limited view!

  • disqus_Pb5yBxXpB8

    As a Jewish atheist with a philosophical-sounding identification problem, I have trouble seeing the point of your critique. If you want to mock culture, every culture has its wonderful targets. If you want to critique Jewish sex philosophy, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Several millennia before the feminist movement’s push for equal rights, Talmud had already declared that enjoyment of sex was a WOMAN’s right, that men’s first obligation was to see that his wife enjoyed sex. Yeah, there were lots of complicating limitations – no complex circumstance can be legislated in a simple rule – but the fact is that in recent times in the US, when Jews were not even allowed citizenship rights in this country, they were still enjoined by their religion to perform satisfactorily for their wives. That is hardly the entire corpus of Jewish achievement, nor is Jewish achievement without flaw. But to purport that some small element of a very humanistic culture is primitive merely because you refuse to see the grandeur of its roots and ignore the mechanisms by which it can still further improve is to miss much of what culture in general is all about, and what Jewish sex culture could still teach an awful lot of people. Guys generally don’t have a problem enjoying sex, even when they haven’t been deprived during nidah. Women often require considerable attention and tenderness. Why can’t you see the beauty of a tradition which observed human nature and acted upon that observation to encourage the bonding and pleasure of couples when life was considerably harsher than it is today? Even as an atheist, I can still see the virtue of much of the cultural tradition which arises disguised as G-d’s orders. And I can also see so much of the harm done by those who claim that G-d has ordered them to act in one psychotic form or another. I’d rather emphasize the good – the bad shows up way too often without any need for people searching under rocks for it.

  • Brian Geary

    You can try to pretty it up all you want, but when men are required to bring their wives’ underwear to a rabbi to inspect it, so he can tell them whether they can have sex or not, that’s degrading to a woman and it’s sick.

  • disqus_Pb5yBxXpB8

    There was nothing about shame in niddah. It was a ritual impurity, not a tangible impurity and was not about shame, but merely about compliance. Jews aren’t permitted to ingest blood, either. But with niddah, I always assumed that keeping the couple apart for two weeks would trigger some serious sex after mikvah, right at the time when the women was likely to be fertile. Thus this was most likely a fertility ritual – unlike the condemnation of “bronze age idiots”, it probably came from some pretty observant (scientific sense of the word) people who wanted to promote population growth. And it helped keep Jews crazy, just in case nobody was trying to kill them for some brief period of time.

  • disqus_Pb5yBxXpB8

    Tell that to my uncle’s partner, who went blind from trichinosis. The low number of cases nowadays is due to a lot of education & considerable FDA oversight.

  • Joe Learner

    What can you expect from a group (orthodox Jews) that performs a circumcision and then has a mohel suck the blood out of the screaming child’s penis?

    Once you scratch past the surface, you find that Judaism is a barbaric cult.

    Also, so cowardly to hide behind the “anti-Semite” claim when any critique is launched at your religion from an outside.


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