- A Lifetime Companion to the Laws of Jewish Family Life
In a review for this journal of the pioneering book Jewish Legal Writings by Women(1998), issued, like Deena Zimmerman's Lifetime Companion to the Laws of Jewish Family Life, by Urim Publications, I wrote:
The emergence of women as the peers of men in most walks of society has influenced all of us in many unexpected ways. Professional women have redefined the notion of "career" for men and women, bringing about a blessed variety of options unknown in the pre-feminist era. The working mother has redefined the nature of child rearing, for better or for worse, in a way that affects fathers, too. It is my hope that women halakhists will have a similar effect on halakhic discourse: educated women, who have yet to receive rabbinic ordination or the title poseket, will decide halakhah for themselves, paving the way for all halakhic Jews to become greater talmidei hakhamim,making their own halakhic choices based upon the [End Page 309]options found within the halakhic system and their own meta-halakhic considerations. 1
Seven years later, the nearly simultaneous appearance of two new guides to the laws of nidah(the menstruant woman), both specifically designed for people with an awareness of the importance of gender-sensitivity—Zimmerman's Lifetime Companionand the second edition of Eliashiv Knohl's Man and Woman( Ish ve'ishah, zakhu Shekhinah beineihem: Pirkei hadrakhah leḥatan vekhalah, first edition 2003)—provides a unique opportunity to determine the extent to which this hope has come true. Zimmerman, who contributed an article on breastfeeding and Jewish law to Jewish Legal Writings for Women, is a pediatrician and a graduate of the Keren Ariel program of Nishmat (the Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Studies for Women), which trains women to become halakhic consultants ( yo'atzot) to other women in this area of Jewish law. Knohl, an Israeli Orthodox rabbi, belongs to the Tzohar movement, a group of rabbis (many of them associated with the religious kibbutz movement) who, informed by contemporary values—including sensitivity to the changing role of women in society—seek to make the rabbinate relevant to all Israelis. Zimmerman's research was supported by a grant from Keren Ariel, while Knohl's book was published by Tzohar and the research institute of the Yeshiva of the Religious Kibbutz Movement. Both works are contemporary variations on a widespread twentieth-century genre of halakhic writing that predated the feminist movement, the "family purity" handbook ( taharat hamishpaḥah, family purity, is a standard euphemism for observance of the laws of nidah, though many feminists find it offensive and/or hypocritical). This provides an interesting background against which to consider the phenomenon to which both these recent works attest: the contemporary guide to the laws of nidah. 2
Both works present the laws of the nidah, the menstruant woman—who is required, a set number of days following her period, to immerse herself in a ritual bath ( mikveh) before resuming sexual relations—in a wider context. For Zimmerman, the context is that of women's health issues and of other halakhic aspects of marriage, such as the wedding ceremony, birth control, and the practice of women covering their hair after marriage. Knohl treats the laws of nidahas one aspect of a wider range of concerns—halakhic, emotional and ethical—that should guide a couple in the course of their interpersonal relations.
These "contexts" no doubt reflect genuine concerns on the part of their authors, who, I sincerely believe, take the additional issues discussed no [End Page 310]less seriously than they do the laws of nidah. They are also clearly meant to diffuse the potential antagonism that the laws of nidahmight engender if they were presented without these relatively uncontroversial "wrappings." However noble the context, however, this apparent need to dilute the...