- Reclaiming Our Tumah:One Woman's "Blood Story"
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On the day following the Sukkoth holiday, 2005, I handed in my doctoral dissertation. The subject of this work is the relationship, especially after the destruction of the Temple, between tumah (ritual impurity) and the rituals and laws surrounding menstruation (and other uterine blood flows). Since being in a state of ritual impurity barred one from worshipping in the Temple, several rituals and laws related to ritual purity and impurity (taharah and tumah) were practiced until the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. After that these practices slowly fell into disuse because of their practical irrelevance.
However, while all other practices related to tumah and taharah are no longer in effect since the destruction of the Temple, a whole host of regulations and rituals are still practiced today in the context of uterine blood flows, making the relationship between tumah and uterine blood flows unique. In other words, while, for example, women still perform internal checks for uterine bleeding and ritually immerse after the bleeding stops in order to exit their ritually impure state, people (men and women alike) who become ritually impure from other causes (such as contact with the dead, nocturnal emissions, contact with certain rodents) do not pay any attention to this fact, nor do they take any measures to reverse their tumah status. They merely ignore it.
Why is this so?
The technical answer to this question is twofold: First, the only way to rid oneself of [End Page 104] tumah caused by contact with a corpse is by sprinkling ashes of the Red Hefer, an animal that has become extinct. Second, the case of a woman's uterine blood flow is unique in that it is the only example in which tumah is still relevant on a practical level, since there is also a sexual prohibition attached to this woman's tumah status. While in other cases, the only relevance of a person's tumah status was to determine whether or not that person could worship in the Temple, in the case of a woman experiencing a uterine flow, her tumah status remains relevant because it is also the factor that determines whether or not she can have sexual intercourse.
While I have come to understand the reasoning behind the retention of the practices surrounding tumah caused by a uterine flow to the exclusion of all other tumah-related rituals, this is far from the end of the story. The continued practice of the laws and rituals that draw attention to this specific type of tumah while all other types of tumah are virtually ignored, has caused women and their bleeding wombs to become the locus of most, if not all, negative associations and discourse on tumah since the destruction of the Temple. Moreover, with only one type of tumah remaining part of the religious social consciousness, the general perception among most Jewish religious practitioners (and even non-practitioners) is that only women's bodies are a source of tumah today. Of course, this is not true. While other types of tumah may be ignored, they did not disappear. In fact, one could even understand tumah as being even more rampant after the destruction of the Temple than ever before, since tumah that is caused by certain sinful behaviors (one of which is intercourse with a woman experiencing a uterine flow) is understood to be the cause of the National Exile. As I said above, tumah today is merely ignored in most cases— except that of our bleeding woman.
This phenomenon is ironic, of course. Because women regularly and consistently rid themselves of tumah each month when they ritually immerse, while men remain in their tameh state indefinitely—some choosing to immerse before Shabbat or before Yom Kippur, but the majority never immersing at all— women who ritually immerse on a regular basis can be considered "less t'meot" than men. However, this is far from the current reality. In fact, not only are all women seen on a subconscious societal level as the source of tumah, but this is especially true...