Is menstruation a symbol of power or dangerous pollution?


"Granted that disorder spoils pattern, it also provides the material of pattern. Order implies restriction; from all possible materials, a limited selection has been made and from all possible relations a limited set has been used. So disorder by implication is unlimited, no pattern has been realised in it, but its potential for patterning is indefinite. This is why, though we seek to create order, we do not simply condemn disorder. We recognise that it is destructive to existing patterns; also that it has potentiality. It symbolises both danger and power" (Douglas, Purity and Danger, 95).

The above quote suggests that disorder within a system can be a symbol or a tool for both danger and power. Within the laws of halakhah are important laws regarding the period of menstruation. In many of the laws, menstruating women represent disorder within the system. During the period of niddah men and women must follow certain purity laws. At the time of menstruation, women are considered marginal. There is no sex allowed during menstruation and Orthodox Jews have broadened the laws to forbid women to touch their husbands or sleep in the same bed with him. Some laws also say that contact with a menstruating women, including the husband's food touched by her, is polluting. These laws marginalize women during the period of menstruation and therefore put them both in a position of power and danger. Douglas states once again:

"To have been in the margins is to have been in contact with danger, to have been at a source of power. It is consistent with the ideas about form and formlessness to treat initiands coming out of seclusion as if they were themselves charged with power, hot dangerous, requiring insulation and a time for cooling down" (Douglas, 98).

According to Douglas, the body is a metaphor for social structure and the restrictions placed on the body, specifically purity laws, symbolize the same laws used by society. Women are marginalized by their exclusion or difference in daily life while they are menstruating but does this also give them a role of power? Some women, such as the Orthodox feminist writer Blu Greenberg, argue that niddah laws give women a power separate from men. Greenberg says that niddah laws were designed to safeguard women from becoming sex objects and to renew sexual relations within a marriage. The mikveh (ritual bath) is not just a symbol of purification but also of renewal, recreation and regeneration of life forces. Some literature written on niddah stresses defilement, punishment and danger but other literature highlights marital love, respect and the holiness of sex. According to Greenberg, niddah is not widely practiced because it's difficult to keep; people mistake it as only a hygiene ritual and concentrate on the sexual prohibitions. She believes that women (and men) can find renewal in marriage as well as a powerful sense of their sexuality through niddah and mikveh. She proposes six ways the community can re-imagine niddah and mikveh:

1) re-educate the community on women's mitzvoth (religious commandments) that already exist

2) change language to de-emphasize terror

3) incorporate women's health benefits such as breast exams

4) reconsider the number of days for abstinence

5) reconsider abstinence at the beginning of marriage

6) reconsider allowed bodily contact to allow more affection

Greenberg believes that rituals of niddah and mikveh also help Jewish women gain a higher level of consciousness and identify with other Jewish women past and present. These mitzvoth allow her to feel like a link in the chain of Jewish women.

"As I go about my business at the mikveh, I often savor the knowledge that I am doing exactly as Jewish women have done for twenty or thirty centuries. It is a matter not only of keeping the chain going, but also one of self-definition: this is how my forebears defined themselves as Jewish women and as part of the community and this is how I define myself. It is the sense of community with them that pleases me. There is yet another aspect to observing a mitzvah for its own sake. The laws of niddah continually remind me that I am a Jew and niddah reinforces that deep inner contentment with a Jewish way of life" (Greenberg, 119).

Although Greenberg views niddah and mikveh as important mitzvoth which greatly benefit women, do women become less powerful once they reach menopause? After menopause women no longer visit the mikveh and therefore lose their monthly ritualized rejuvenation. Rituals of abstinence disappear between husband and wife. If the mikveh rejuvenates sexual relations between them, the loss of the ritual could, in theory, change sexual relations between partners. Greenberg also questions this by saying "One must wonder whether a woman who has faithfully observed mikveh throughout her life feels a heightened sense of loss at menopause" (Greenberg, 119). In a sense, women's marginality gave them a sense of power by following the purity ritual. Once women reach menopause they are no longer "dangerous" to men and would therefore lose power according to Douglas' theory.


Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge, 1966.

Greenberg, Blu. On Women and Judaism. Philadelphia: the Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981.

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