Comic of intergenerational argument. by the Forward

I’m a male rabbi — should I leave niddah to women?

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From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to bintel@forward.com.

Dear Bintel,

I’m a male rabbinical student who was recently invited to participate in a student-led study group about the laws of niddah. All the other students are women, for whom these laws apply practically, and I feel very unsure about my role in that space.

I don’t want to intrude on a group for whom these laws have practical applications, but I also appreciate that women study tons of laws that might not always have practical implications for them (for example, circumcision, or the laws of tefillin, for women who choose not to wear them). The convener of the group invited me, warmly, but I’m still hesitating.

Do you think I should step back, or join?

Signed,
Not For Me

Dear Me,

To be honest, it sounds like you might be a little squeamish about the idea of joining a group where a bunch of women will be discussing their periods.

I think the only thing you should consider is whether or not being part of this group will make you a better rabbi, or further your knowledge of Jewish texts in ways that are important to you. That’s not always the only thing to consider — no reason to barge into a space in which you are not invited — but this is a student-led study group that has invited you to join. I’m struggling to get at the heart of your concern, which is why I wonder if there is another root to your discomfort.

There is also no reason to think of niddah as something that exists in the untouchable realm of women. I mean, for some Jewish women it is really important that there are female-only spaces to discuss these laws. But you’ve been invited! And you’re going to be a rabbi!

The laws of niddah are a huge, complex system of Jewish laws that have regulated physical intimacy among Jewish couples for millenia, which, for the record, certainly impacts men. Even if you won’t be part of Jewish communities that observe these laws — which is true for most of American Jews — I imagine you might want to know this stuff. And in that case,

I would also imagine that studying these laws amidst the very people for whom they are intended would be particularly useful. There is so much more texture and context that comes up when discussing Jewish texts in the consequence of actual lived lives, and you will likely leave with a deeper and more complex understanding. I wish all rabbis studying niddah laws did so in the context of women-led groups!

Now, if you just don’t care about niddah writ large, or don’t want to add another obligation to your schedule, or otherwise don’t want to join, skip it. But if you are intrigued and only hesitant because you feel uncomfortable about it, then I say there is no time like the present to get more comfortable discussing menstruation with women, in all of its details. I’m sure you’ll learn a lot.

But don’t be weird about it! This is a study group with future colleagues. Listen, learn, ask about the texts, offer your own interpretations and views, but don’t ask people personal questions about their periods or assume you know more about the female body or otherwise try to dominate the conversation. You’re there to learn, so let that guide your presence.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to bintel@forward.com.

I’m a male rabbi — should I leave niddah to women?

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