When Yeshivat Maharat, the school that trains Orthodox women as spiritual and halachic leaders, started last fall to plan its first public symposium, Dean Rabba Sara Hurwitz planned to call the event “Menstruation, Sexuality and Modesty,” but was persuaded to drop the idea.
“We thought nobody would turn up for that,” she said.
So the event became “Sexuality, Modesty and Niddah in the 21st Century.” Even with the taboo word removed, the subject was sensitive. But people did show — about 60 of them, paying $25 each to attend — the evening of May 20 at the JCC in Manhattan.
The event took niddah, which colloquially refers to the body of laws governing menstruation and marital contact including intercourse, out of the private realm of “kallah classes” for brides and put it on the public agenda. The resulting evening, like Yeshivat Maharat itself, was a new experience for the Jewish community, and one that couldn’t be easily defined.
“Suddenly, right before a couple gets married, they’re sat down and led into this secret of how they are supposed to halachically live their married life,” Hurwitz said. “Bedikah cloths (women use them to make sure they’re no longer menstruating) are the best-kept secret in Jewish law.”
One the one hand, Yeshivat Maharat’s program was scholarly. In the opening sessions, both Hurwitz and Imam Shaykh Abdallah Adhami, founder of the Islamic educational foundation Sakeenah, outlined the menstrual practices of Muslim and Jewish women. Breakout sessions such as “Between Anger and Apologetics: Finding Meaning in Hilkhot Niddah” delved into texts obscure even to practitioners of niddah, such as one stating that a menstruating woman can cause red drops to appear on a mirror by looking at it.
On the other hand, the seminar offered attendees fodder for personal reflection. Erin Leib Smokler, the yeshiva’s director of spiritual development, offered a paper entitled “Spirituality and Sensuality” that urged listeners to understand that “Desire and pleasure, sexuality and sensuality are all essential tools of the Torah-centered life … There is a religious imperative to satisfy the appetite.”
Adina Segal, a social worker whose husband is an Orthodox rabbi, said as the mother of two young daughters she felt grateful for the opportunity to have a discussion about modesty, a concept she said has become distorted.
“I feel affirmed coming here,” she said. “I often feel very alone. And I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I want to reconceptualize modesty for modern 21st-century women.”
Most of the audience members were women whose outward appearance — covered hair, long skirts — suggested that they either observe the laws of niddah, or will one day. But there were also men in attendance, and women in pants; afterwards everybody munched on dates and pastries, sipped wine, and mixed and mingled.
Indeed, the yeshiva’s goal in launching this series of symposia — they’re aiming for two a year — was both to give its faculty and students a platform to present scholarship of interest to the community, and to attract a broader audience, Hurwitz said.
“I would love to see sessions like this about everything,” said Jessica Rosenberg, 26, a student at Drisha, the school for women’s Torah and Talmud study, who will start in the fall as a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. “As a queer woman, I’m especially interested in what Judaism teaches about the body. It’s amazing, especially learning about it from these masterful, learned women.”