The tragic story of Tulasi Shahi reads as if it belongs in the Dark Ages. As is the custom in her community in Nepal, the 18-year-old had been sent to stay in her uncle’s hut while she menstruated, forced to sleep on wooden boards in a rough structure normally housing cows. She died last Friday, after being bit by a poisonous snake and denied quick medical treatment. Two other girls in Nepal are known to have died in menstrual sheds in just the last year, victims of ignorance and ancient superstition that treats menstruating females no better than farm animals.
Fortunately, such practices seem to be confined to isolated, largely illiterate populations. But the echoes elsewhere are unmistakable.
We hear them in the crude, entirely inappropriate obsession with women’s blood that President Trump exhibits — even if, as Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic, “What’s especially striking about the American president’s blood-feuding, here, is that American pop culture has, in recent years, made explicit efforts to remove the regressive associations between women and blood.”
And we hear echoes in the Jewish law stipulating that women should be isolated when they bleed each month, and are considered unclean until they are purified. I am not suggesting that Jewish women who observe the laws of purity are sent to huts to live with animals — of course not. In fact, the tradition has sometimes framed their isolation as a sort of embracing feminist collective a la The Red Tent, the 1997 book by Anita Diamant that turned the menstrual hut in biblical times into a form of women’s community.
Among some Jews, however, these laws are used to maintain (male) rabbinic control over strict gender separation, placing onorous burdens on women. Just look at what happened to the developers of a new app called “Tahor.” As my colleague Sam Kestenbaum reported, some Orthodox women must see a rabbi with a cloth to prove that she is no longer bleeding before she can immerse in a ritual bath and resume having sex with her husband. The app is meant to help women by allowing them to instead send cell phone photos to the rabbi for approval.
But, as Sam just told me, even rabbis who initially supported the idea now are against it. I guess the regressive associations between women and blood are still with us.
My husband, an oncologist, is a regular reader of the Annals of Internal Medicine — not my usual fare! — and thanks to him, I was alerted to a fascinating article about Nazi medical ethics. It turns out that the Nazis created a curriculum with their own perverted ethical rationale and used it in medical schools across the Third Reich. Here’s my essay about this disturbing revelation.
Hearing From You.
A few weeks ago, I asked readers to weigh in on why it seems it’s easier to talk about intermarriage than Israel. Elliot Brumer, who describes himself as “a Reform-Conservative hybrid” from Los Angeles, sent this thoughtful response:
“Whether rabbis speak more about intermarriage or relations with Israel, the world Jewish community faces an existential threat. Sadly, the threat has always existed from the outside. Now, we must face what could be a worse threat; the divisions within the Jewish community itself. I, for one, always disagreed with the settlements as far back as the 1970s. As an extreme religious orthodoxy seems to be taking over in Israel, as it seems to be in many countries, these divisions will only worsen.
As to intermarriage, there are two ways of looking at it. The first is that we have already lost the war. The second is that it gives us an opportunity to evolve and survive, as Jews have done for centuries.
Both issues are a challenge to us. Eretz Yisrael, in whatever form that it exists, is our spiritual homeland. Its survival is indispensable to our own survival as Jews. Mutual respect and compromise between Israelis and the Diaspora must exist if we are to exist as a people. If we cannot compromise and understand each other’s points of view, then it will not matter if we have intermarriage or not. We will simply destroy ourselves.”
Ivanka Trump is in the news again, so look for my latest essay examining how she compares to, yes, Wonder Woman. And don’t forget to email me with your questions and concerns. If you prefer to keep your correspondence private, let me know!
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.
Jane Looking Forward: Revisiting the Red Tent, Nazi Medical Ethics, Ivanka and More