Welcome to the first post on my first-ever blog.
This academic blog will follow me throughout my aspiring academic career as an anthropologist of religion: from my current PhD dissertation research, writing, and defense; through a much-awaited publishing binge on backlogged articles waiting to be submitted and/or written); through the post-doc job search; and well into future projects [more about future projects here and here].
I am Isobel-Marie Johnston, a graduate student at Arizona State University where I have been studying menstrual rituals generally and how the Jewish menstrual rituals known as the Laws of Niddah or Taharat Hamishpachah (lit. “Purity of the Family” aka Family Purity) are lived today. [see What is Niddah?] Of these three terms, I go by the more traditional ‘Niddah’ in an effort to contribute to the revival-by-rebranding of this word [see Why do I call it “Niddah”?].
While this blog’s early years will focus on issues running through and surrounding menstrual rituals generally and Niddah specifically, it aims to establish itself from the outset as a space for thinking through the various complex threads that run through ‘bodily ritual practices’.
What?!? Unpack that please!
I study how we use our bodies not only to perform rituals but how many of the rituals we practice regularly strive to express or even change how we experience our lives in and through our bodies. The rituals we engage cultivate specific ways of being in the world.
I favor rituals that are more or less regular, everyday practices in our lives. The Jewish practices of Niddah, are an example of a bodily ritual that becomes part of the daily rhythms of intimate life for those who observe it.
Already in just over 300 words I have sent up flags that likely concern both my Orthodox and Liberal Jewish readers differently. The rest of this first blog hopes to clarify these flags and soothe your worries.
Before jumping into that hot mess, I want to explain a bit about how I am organizing my blog site…and this involves a bit of self-disclosure. I am dyslexic. For those aren’t familiar with dyslexia, our brains are literally wired to think more non-linearly than our non-dyslexic friends, family, and coworkers. If you are interested in this neuro-biology, I recommend The Dyslexic Advantage. What this means for me as a thinker and a blogger is that my mind networks while I’m reading, thinking, writing, even talking! I am designing Ritual Bodies’ blogspace to reflect this non-linear approach by seeding each long full blog post with hyperlinks to mini-blog side-trails. Not only does this also mirror my own writing process, but it also opens up my posts to a wider variety of reading styles:
- Read straight through and go back for the side-trails (or ignore them!);
- meander through the main post, wandering in and out of the side-trails;
- or an as-needed combination of both.
Back to the top four anxieties about my work on Niddah:
- You’re an academic studying Niddah?!?
Believe me, I am very critical of how academics have historically talked about and approached both menstrual rituals and Niddah. I believe these often-problematic approaches result from a perfect storm of:
- problematic menstrual politics;
- literalist (hence problematic) secular views of religion; and
- an ironically Protestant-rooted emphasis on beliefs over ritual…and hence major misinterpretations of rituals.
A major -and super ambitious- drive for my work is to continue the inside-out reform of the academic approach to menstrual rituals into a full-blown subfield of menstrual studies. This reform has been underway since Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb, et al challenged established academic assumptions about menstrual rituals as backward and misogynistic in Blood Magic: the Anthology of Menstruation. Sincethe 1980s, many scholars have been conducting positive, culturally-sensitive studies of non-Jewish menstrual rituals in ways that consistently push back against these hard-entrenched attitudes inside and outside academia. In many ways, studies of Niddah have not kept pace with these positive movements. This lag reflects two additional factors unique to the Rabbinic Jewish community writ large…and leads to the second point of anxiety with my introduction above:
2. You’re lumping Niddah in with “menstrual rituals”
- Between the early and middle 20th century, Orthodox interests in promoting the recently rebranded Taharat HaMishpacha or Family Purity strove to separate Niddah from other menstrual rituals which they (and the majority culture) labeled as “primitive” or “demeaning to women”. Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s Hedge of Roses is probably the most familiar articulation of this argument for readers today.
- As the internal politics of Orthodox versus Liberal Judaism has unfolded through the 20th century, Niddah in particular has been used by Liberal Jews as a wedge to define the dividing lines and frankly alienate Orthodoxy as “backward” and “demeaning to women”. This internal politics seems to have intensified in the last quarter of the 20th century particularly among Jewish Second Wave feminists who absorbed the perfect storm outlined above as part of their assimilation into “modern” society.
Both these arguments are anchored to a unique combination of colonially-minded ideas about menstrual rituals in general (that oversimplify non-European indigenous cultures and a lot of academic research since the 1980s backs this statement up); and a defensiveness about the double-risk that any areas of Jewish life shown to resemble “primitive Others” could give antisemites on the outside more ammunition and simultaneously drive “modernizing” Jews on the inside further away from fold. Fear. Six ways from Tuesday.
For a number of reasons, that I will elaborate in a future full blog post, I believe the time is ripe -and safe- for Niddah advocates to embrace Jewish menstrual rituals within the rich continuum of world-wide menstrual rituals. [Watch for “Why the time is ripe for Jews to embrace Niddah as a Menstrual Ritual”]. For this intro, I will focus on how I see my approach to studying Niddah can contribute to both menstrual studies in general and contemporary Judaism specifically.
3. My academic mission (aka “She got chutzpah”.)
Back in 2001, anthropologist Janet Hoskins shared her conviction that a subfield of Menstrual Studies was possible and needed. Such a field has not yet emerged. One of my career goals is to bring such a subfield into reality. I believe two key differences in my approach to the study of Niddah offer missing pieces to the subfield puzzle:
- The majority of studies on menstrual rituals in anthropology, sociology, and psychology are descriptive and approach menstrual rituals as an aspect of culture (a few notable exceptions). Bodies of descriptive literature are not enough to build a subfield of scholarship. The missing piece is a conceptual framework for depth analysis and comparative studies of how menstrual rituals function within families and communities.
- Menstrual rituals are fundamentally social rituals. That menstrual rituals are observed not only by menstruants, but also by their intimate partners, and in some cases by their whole families. The vast majority of studies of menstrual rituals that I have read (there are a very few exceptions) hyperfocus on solo women practitioners to the exclusion of the social relationships and networks that their menstrual rituals are embedded in.
I believe that the Ritual Studies perspective provides the missing piece needed to address both these issues and finally provide Menstrual Studies the structure it needs to establish itself as an official subfield [Watch for a future full blog post: “What would a subfield of Menstrual Studies look like?”] By bringing the ritual studies perspective to Niddah, we can see these ritual practices as an exception that establishes the proves an old rule or establishes a new one. Niddah stands out among other menstrual rituals world-wide in that its’ Rabbinic Jewish observance does not require observing its ritual lifestyle from menarche to menopause. Rather, Rabbinic Jewish Niddah traditionally only applies to heterosexual partners married “according to the laws of Moses and Aaron”. [To understand why I am italizicing “traditionally”, see Why I avoid saying “spousal partners” or “married couples”] This makes a strong connection between Jewish menstrual rituals and sexual intimacy. In ritual studies, we call this kind of connection building “indexing”. I an as yet unpublished paper (So can’t go in depth about it in Ritual Bodies) I observe that all menstrual rituals are indexed to some other aspect of the religio-cultures in which they are embedded. For example, Hindu menstrual rituals index cooking; Muslim menstrual rituals index formal communal prayers, and Mary Douglas observed that among the Bantu community of the Lele on the Kasai River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo index menstrual rituals with hunting. When we approach menstrual rituals in terms of their socio-cultural indexing, a world of combination analysis of both the menstrual rituals and their indexed cultural area opens up. I will update you when this article finally lands a place in a peer-reviewed journal. This indexing provides the analytical framework on which a subfield can be built…and we can’t get there without Niddah.
4. What is your personal position on Niddah? Are you Orthodox? Are you even Jewish??
Yes, I am Jewish. My position on Niddah -and other menstrual rituals- is rich and complex and overtime, this blog will demonstrate what exactly “rich and complex” means. Suffice for now to say that my interest in Niddah and the questions I pose in my research are strongly informed by my personal experiences observing Niddah for almost 15 years now (and counting) and my lived observations within a variety of Niddah observant communities in the United States of America.
As for my affiliation, I am not Orthodox, but I have observed the Laws of a Niddah since about 2006. I have identified as Conservodox for over 10 years now and me and my family affiliated with a Traditional Egalitarian congregation from 2013 to 2020. Over the past two years, I have been gravitating toward Neo-Hasidism, the label I prefer over “Jewish Renewal” because I understand Renewal to be more dispersed throughout the denominations in a way that Neo-Hasidism per se is not. We, my family and I are not part of a Neo-Hasidic or Renewal congregation because we live at the wrong end of the valley for the one Renewal congregation in Greater Phoenix…and anyhow it still doesn’t have in-person services as far as we know. Zoom services just don’t do anything for us.
My research to date shows that my husband and I are not alone as a non-Orthodox observers of Niddah. In my 2018 pilot study in the Greater Phoenix Valley (N=51), of the participants in that study who stated they had immersed in a mikvah (N=27) and completed the demographics questions (N=26), the denominational affiliation sorted out like this:
|Minus cross-category, multiple affiliations
Of these, only 69.23% were Niddah observant immersers, indicating that 23.08% of Niddah observant immersers in the Greater Phoenix Valley did not affiliate as Orthodox.
This was echoed to a lesser extent in my 2021 survey of US and Canadian Jews (N=304) in which 104 participants reported they had immersed in a mikvah. Of these, only 96 completed the demographics section.
“Orthodox” = 13; “Modern Orthodox” = 15
|Minus cross-category, multiple affiliations
Of these, only 35.42% stated they immersed for Niddah, indicating that 6.25% of Niddah observant immersers did not affiliate as Orthodox.
So, according to this data, I fit comfortably in the second or third largest groups of Niddah observers.
In terms of my general observance, we are Conservative level shomer Shabbos: we drive to synagogue and shabbos meals with friends but avoid distance and non-mitzvah travel on Shabbat. We have switch-covers placed throughout our home (plus two Shabbos lamps and one shabbulb). May through early October, we go swimming on shabbat…this is Arizona after all where summers are measured by how many days are over 110° and over 115°. Our home is strictly kosher and vegetarian (only because two of us still eat eggs and a third eats dairy products). Locally, we accept vegan restaurants as “kosher enough”. Especially when we travel and to a lesser extent locally, I stick to vegan options on conventional restaurants, favoring ethnic restaurants (Middle Eastern and Thai) that rely more on scratch cooking. A favorite local vegan restaurant recently closed but the Brahman Hindu owner there had such high standards for non-animal products that she could not use kosher sugar because it was filtered through animal-based charcoal…and her brand of choice avoided even this much contact with animal products. This assured me her restaurant was unequivocally pareve. Most vegan restaurants engage this much scrutiny over the fine details of their ingredients; whereas my experience has been that vegetarian restaurants are not consistently this vigilant…plus my family has food allergies that can make vegetarian restaurants still difficult places to find a safe meal. In fact, these food allergies actually mean that the vast majority of kosher certified restaurants are not actually safe places for us to eat either! Wow.
You might also have noticed that mikvah immersion is spread across non-Orthodox and conversions only account for a small segment of these numbers: 30.77% in the 2018 pilot study and 41.58% in the 2021 continental study. I will say more about this in my dissertation and hopefully a book thereafter, which means I am more limited in what I can post/publish publicly about this here. My dissertation research has actually veered away from Niddah and centers more on mikvah immersion generally. For more on my current research, watch for my next full post “COVID & My Dissertation Drama”.
 Brock L. Eide and Fernette F. Eide, The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain (New York, N.Y., United States: Hudson Street Press, Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2011).
 Thomas C. T. Buckley and Alma Gottlieb, eds., Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
 Norman Lamm, A Hedge of Roses: Jewish Insights into Marriage and Married Life. (New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1987).
 Janet Hoskins, “Blood Mysteries: Beyond Menstruation as Pollution,” Ethnology 41, no. 4 (Fall 2002): 299, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=8896893&site=ehost-live.