As an ethnographic anthropologist of Niddah, my job is to be attentive to and study what is actually happening in the communities I study. While I personally have specific position within Jewish communities and within the communities of those who observe Niddah, I must be careful as an academic to not limit my study of current culture to my position within that culture. On the one hand, I do not believe that anyone can ever be 100% objective or a blank slate “unbiased”. On the other hand, I believe that I can act with much less bias by being attentive to the range of real lived practice in the lives of others. Whenever possible, I must let others speak for themselves through my research. I can not be “unbiased”, I can act in an un- or less- biased manner by simply attending fully and really listening to others who stand and live in different positions from myself.
What this means for the study of Niddah, particularly since I am documenting the huge diversity of Niddah practice across North America, is that I can not screen who I study by who they are, where they live or congregate, or how they observe Niddah. By leaving these biases in my research open, I have been able to learn just where Jews -in the United States particularly- are bringing Niddah observance into their lives. Through this approach, I have learned that Jews today are bringing Niddah observance into an enormous variety of intimate relationships within all Jewish denominations and all observance levels.
How do I know this? Most of my knowledge comes firsthand from Jewish women themselves telling with me that they observe Niddah. I seems to be a strong desire to discuss Niddah observance but either a position within anti-Niddah, liberal Judaism or non-heteronormative and/or non-monogamous relationships is currently leaving a LOT of Niddah observers in various shades of closeted. But my knowledge of this rich variety also comes through the screening questions asked by Orthodox mikvah attendants; the jokes posted on traditionally Orthodox social media and blogs; and news articles coming out of Israel. For example, the joke about knowing what it means when an orthodox Jewish guy shows up to a date with his tefillin bag mean the sexual partners are not cohabiting, unmarried, but there is still an expectation that he will still be at his partner’s place when it is time to recite morning prayers…the humor being rooted in the seeming contraction of being that observant about prayers but not sexual relations. I also know through friends that Niddah is hotly debated in LBT-NB social media spaces as being either irrelevant or still meaningful for lesbian, transgender, and non-binary relationships in which one more of the partners is a menstruant. As a cis-gendered, heterosexual researcher, I do not presume to be welcome in these spaces and seek alternative routes to learn about how LBT-NB Jews think about Niddah.
So where is Niddah showing up?
- Niddah is observed by non-married Orthodox couples.
- Niddah is observed outside of Orthodoxy by liberally affiliated Jews.
- Niddah behaviors are observed by women who do not recognize their menstrual-sexual practices as “Niddah”. I call this the “sleeper” group.
- Niddah is observed by some lesbian couples.
- Niddah is observed by couples in which one or both partner is/are transgender or non-binary and still menstruating.
- Niddah is observed by interfaith couples in which one partner is Jewish.
- Niddah is observed within polyamorous relationships families or “polycules” in which one or all partners is Jewish.
This opens up analytical space for understanding how Niddah is understood by different Jews within the USA today. I have not researched all these Niddah spaces in any depth; but I can speak to how these different spaces where Niddah is lived reflect very different emphases on what Niddah stands for as a mitzvah, as a ritual requirement. I will outline these constellations of Niddah’s meaning and value in future blog posts. The goal for this post has been to explain why I use the phrase “intimate partners” and other gender and relationally neutral terms to reflect the lived reality within Jewish communities today. When I am speaking about the traditionally normative hetero-monogamous-marital contexts of Niddah, I will use the terms that anchor themselves in this position. You might notice me italicizing the word “traditionally” when I do this. But most of the time, when I am speaking about Niddah as a general ritual practice observed by the diversity of Jews today, I will use more inclusive and neutral terms.