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The Menstruant in Medieval Jewish Mysticism

Sharon Faye Koren

Publication Year: 2011

This book addresses a central question in the study of Jewish mysticism in the medieval and early modern periods: why are there no known female mystics in medieval Judaism, unlike contemporaneous movements in Christianity and Islam? Sharon Faye Koren demonstrates that the male rejection of female mystical aspirations is based in deeply rooted attitudes toward corporeality and ritual purity. In particular, medieval Jewish male mystics increasingly emphasized that the changing states of the female body between ritual purity and impurity disqualified women from the quest for mystical connection with God.

Offering a provocative look at premodern rabbinical views of the female body and their ramifications for women's spiritual development, Koren compares Jewish views with medieval Christian and Muslim views of both female menstruation and the possibility of female mystical experience.

Published by: Brandeis University Press

Front Matter

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xiii

In this compelling new examination of Judaic mystical approaches to women’s bodies and their functions, Sharon Faye Koren combines a mastery of rabbinic source materials with the tools of contemporary theoretical analysis, including gender theory. ...

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pp. xv-xvii

I am thrilled to finally have the opportunity to publicly thank everyone who has helped me bring this work to its fruition. I first began studying mysticism as a graduate student in the medieval studies program at Yale University and I owe an enormous debt to my teachers. ...

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pp. 1-12

In the world of the Zohar, menstruation is antithetical to God. The biblical term for menstruant, niddah, has two possible roots, n-d-h and n-d-d, both of which imply expelling.1 Perhaps menstruants were temporarily cast out of their communities; alternatively, the term may suggest, even more neutrally, ...

I. Early Jewish Mysticism

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1 From Earthly Temple to Heavenly Temple: Impurity in Early Jewish Mysticism

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pp. 15-27

The theology that would become Kabbalah derived in part from the mystical experiences and ascetical practices that were preserved in the Hekhalot literature. Scholars vary widely in their dating of Hekhalot literature, some dating its origin as early as the second century CE, thereby situating the literature in the rabbinic period, ...

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2 The Mysticism of the Beraita d’Niddah

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pp. 28-42

The Beraita d’Niddah (BdN) is a collection of niddah laws and traditions traditionally dated to Geonic Palestine that isolates menstruants from ritually pure human beings and from all things sacred. Although we do not have a definitive text or known authors,1 many traditions in the BdN emphasize the antagonism ...

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3 Menstruation and the Mystics of Ashkenaz

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pp. 43-60

The emphasis on human purity for mystical pursuits characteristic of the originally Palestinian traditions recorded in Hekhalot literature and the Beraita d’Niddah (BdN) influenced Jewish exoteric and esoteric piety among the burgeoning Jewish communities of the Mediterranean basin. Jews, who moved ...

II. Medieval Kabbalah

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4 Menstrual Impurity and Mystical Praxis in Theosophical Kabbalah

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pp. 63-74

Kabbalah emerges in southern France at the end of the twelfth century in response to the challenge of medieval Aristotelianism.1 Provençal rabbis were first introduced to Aristotelian philosophy by Sephardim fleeing the Almohad and Almoravid persecutions in the 1140s. After Maimonides’ works reached ...

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5 The Myth of the Menstruating Shekhinah

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pp. 75-83

As the “Mystery of the Entrance to the Land” makes clear, kabbalists conceived of menstruation as both a terrestrial and a supernal force that must be avoided in order to have a successful mystical encounter. Kabbalists saw the sefirotic realm as an organism whose processes reflect our own. ...

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6 The Ontic Metamorphosis of the Menstruating Shekhinah

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pp. 84-97

The correspondence between the terrestrial and the supernal menstruant is not merely biological. It also has a moral dimension. When pure, the Shekhinah promotes divine unity. When impure, she becomes a force of evil that must be banned, literally niddah, from the divine realm. That kabbalists understood ...

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7 The Interplay between Myth, Science, and Law

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pp. 98-124

Medieval kabbalists derived some aspects of their understanding of menstruation from contemporary science. Medieval physicians and natural philosophers used ancient Greek philosophy to justify women’s physical inferiority. Certain thirteenth-century kabbalists adapted these ideas to prove Jewish women’s ...

III. Mysticism & Menstruation in Islam & Christianity

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8 Menstrual Impurity and Sufism

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pp. 127-143

In Islam, laws of menstrual purity are part of a vast system of purity laws that govern Muslims’ daily lives. Because of its quotidian nature, impurity is not an unusual state for Muslims; consequently, menstruation loses much of its stigma, particularly within the Sufi tradition. Sufis enlarged the symbolism of impurity ...

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9 Menstrual Impurity in Medieval Christianity

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pp. 144-171

Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity emerge as siblings from a common parent—Israelite religion. The rituals that Jews and Christians derived from the Temple cult not only throw light on their differences but also underscore that which mattered most to each culture. Early Christians conceived of themselves ...

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pp. 172-176

According to a popular midrashic tradition, the nonagenarian Sarah never menstruated until three angels arrived to announce the birth of Isaac. The Zohar interprets Sarah’s amenorrhea as a mark of her sanctity and singular status among women. She alone, of all her sex, was free of the stain of impurity.1 ...


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pp. 177-236


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pp. 237-276


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pp. 277-286

E-ISBN-13: 9781611680225
E-ISBN-10: 1611680220

Page Count: 306
Publication Year: 2011