Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 547-553
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Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender
Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender. By Charlotte Fonrobert. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. Pp. 326. $55.00 (cloth).
This book is an important study of the classic rabbinic discourse on menstruation and the range of meanings accorded to women's bodies in talmudic literature. Fonrobert both deploys and critiques feminist and gender critical approaches to the talmudic discourse on niddah (the regulations pertaining to menstruation derived from biblical law) and leads us to an understanding of the cultural function of this discourse within the larger textual world of rabbinic literature and within the context of Jewish and Christian culture in late antiquity.
As the author points out, the laws of menstruation have been caught in the current battle of polemics and apologetics on gender relations in Jewish culture, branded as irredeemably sexist, on the one hand, or praised as conducive to women's sexual autonomy. Fonrobert, citing Mieke Bal's work on the Bible, is not interested in claiming the laws of menstruation [End Page 547] as either a feminist resource or a sexist manifesto. Her interest lies in understanding the cultural function of rabbinic discourse on menstruation and in highlighting its constructedness so as to reveal counterdiscourses. The author is true to her stated intentions. One of the great strengths of the books is its refusal to slip into polemic or apologetic politics.
Chapter 1 examines the term niddah itself and concludes that the context of rabbinic literature, the primary semantic field of the term, does not support the meaning of ostracism and banning (p. 19). Rabbinic texts do not reflect or even allude to a practice of excluding menstruants from society, and some texts even emphasize that such exclusion does not occur. The primary range of meaning of the term niddah appears to be, simply, the woman who is menstruating (p. 19). However, a key "slippage" or merger occurs in the rabbinic discourse on menstruation. In the Bible, menstruation appears in two conceptually different contexts: the first (Lev. 15) is that of ritual impurity, which is, for the most part, contingent on the existence of the Temple; the second (Lev. 18) is that of prohibited sexual relations, which is not contingent on the existence of the Temple. In post-Temple times most halakhic regulations and observances of menstruation concern the prevention of sexual relations between husband and wife, yet a good deal of (erroneous) scholarship and polemics has proceeded on the assumption that the rabbinic discourse on menstruation and the entire practice of niddah rests on the notion of a woman's ritual impurity and is therefore inherently degrading. In rabbinic literature, these two conceptual contexts merge as the rabbis employ the language of impurity to indicate not a concrete ritual impurity but the wife's sexual inaccessibility to her husband. In rabbinic texts, to say that one is niddah, or that one is impure, is to say that one is sexually unavailable because menstruating. The rabbis did not create a language particular to sexual inaccessibility but continued and adapted biblical usage (p. 37).
It is important to clarify these matters at the very outset, and Fonrobert's account is correct as far as it goes. However, her case for the constructedness of the rabbinic discourse on menstruation--and its significance--would be stronger were she to consider the all-important distinction in biblical, Second Temple, and rabbinic sources between two main modes of impurity: ritual and moral. Leviticus 15 focuses on the ritual impurity generated by menstruation--a form of impurity that carries with it no connotation of sin or wrongdoing. However, unlike the other sources of ritual impurity, menstruation is also connected with moral impurity in the Bible. Leviticus 18 classifies sexual intercourse with a menstruant as one in a set of abominable and abhorrent transgressions said to generate a polluting moral impurity punished by extinction at the hands of God (karet). It...