As you learned from my intro post (if not yet, you will when you go back) my dissertation project moved me away from Niddah [see “What is Niddah?”] and toward the more general area of mikvah, Jewish full-body immersion in a ritually constructed mini-pool . Building a project around Niddah itself is especially challenging because the majority of this ritual is lived virtually invisibly between intimate partners [see “Why I avoid saying “spousal partners” or “married couples”?”]. So, for research that strives to stay connected to the actual needs and interests of the communities within in which I study, the challenge of designing research is two-fold.
- How to gather information about the personal lives of participants? Can Niddah be studied without such personal information? Niddah, particularly in its more traditional observances, impacts the sex lives of the observing partners other menstrual ritual practices, with the possible exception of the Rastafari House of Bobo Shanti. [Watch for a future post on this.]
- How to anchor such a research project to some kind of organizational or institutional entity that is meaningfully connected to one or more communities?
One path for research depends on me learning more about how marital therapists currently support Niddah-observant Jewish couples. From what little I have found about Niddah in published journals of clinical psychology and marital therapy [citation], most counselors and therapists only see Niddah as an issue that impacts the timing of any sexual intimacy homework they might assign/prescribe. Yet, as Rabbi Bulka has observed in his chapter “A Most Delicate Mitzvah” in Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology, how a couple enacts Niddah is intricately enmeshed -for better or worse- with each couple’s interpersonal dynamics. Rivkah Slonim as asserted that “Niddah can not save a bad marriage, but it can make a good marriage transcendent”. What Rabbi Bulka and Mrs. Slonim are tapping into here is that, despite the many, many prescriptive how-to books and what-if scenarios in ritual guides and online Q-A forums like “Ask the Yoetzet”, Niddah observance is fundamentally a negotiated practice. The everyday gestures, speech, personal arrangements, even the strictness (or lack of it) of traditional ritual details is highly dependent on the agreements (or lack of them) between the partners.
Through my experience as a Niddah practitioner and my study of it through the lens of ritual studies, I understand that the choices intimate partners make about the micro-details of how a they observe Niddah together: how they pass objects both expresses the dynamics of their relationship and reinforces those same dynamics. In my work, I describe Niddah as producing an espresso version of their relationship. The structure of Niddah observance amplifies what’s already there.
This means that helping a couple talk through these micro-details of their Niddah and non-Niddah times can bring insight into certain dynamics of the relationship that might not show up elsewhere, or that reinforce or show depth to issues the therapist -or the partners- had already observed. And more than this, making small changes to these micro-details like how they pass objects to each other, or habits of how they speak to each other can make major impacts of how they live their relationship with each other. More than being a potential obstacle that needs to be worked around in the spirit of cultural sensitivity, Niddah offers a structure for both evaluating the relationship and changing it…in the domain of cultural competence.
If you are an academic, a rabbi, or clinical professional with either concern or interest about such research, I would love to hear from you. Email me at Isobel-Marie.Johnston@asu.edu.
 Reuven P. Bulka, “A Most Delicate Mitzvah,” in Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology, ed. Rivkah Slonim and Liz Rosenberg (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1996), 64–75.
[IJ1]When it comes to mikvah, size matters: 40 seahs.