In graduate school, I was the lone female in a class filled with Orthodox Jewish boys. When we spoke about the role of women in Jewish ritual, one of my classmates spoke up.”You know what bothers me most? When women read from the Torah.”
“What?” I screamed in my head. Did he really just say that? I felt shocked and sick to my stomach even though I knew better. This boy is Orthodox; to him, women and men have separate jobs in life. However, at that moment, I didn’t know better. I felt like I’d been slapped in the face and spit on. “I’m a woman.” I want to yell. “I’m a graduate student in Jewish Literature but I can’t touch the Torah?” I want to yell louder and shake him: hard. Instead, I take a breath.
“Why?” I asked.
“Tradition.” he answered.
“Tradition?” I thought to myself. Female genital mutilation is tradition in some cultures that doesn’t make it right. ” Is that it?” I asked him
“And niddah…” he starts to explain.
“Yes,” I interrupt in annoyance, “I’m quite aware of niddah.”
Niddah is the time of ritual uncleanness for women. At least five days from the start of their period till seven days after a period ends. That means at least half the month a women is considered ritually unclean and cannot be touched by her husband. (orthodox women cannot be touched by any man who isn’t her husband at any time.)
I can’t help but wonder if he knows how cruel his perspective is. He is, after all, placing women into two categories: sexual beings or ritually unclean objects. Women are not worthy of the scroll, not worthy of the aging paper, or the words carved slowly in ink by an ancient scribe. We are not worthy of the silver yad, or the echo of the rise and fall of the trope gliding in and out of the ears of the congregation. We are unworthy and dirty: dirty from blood or dirty from the mind of a roomful of men who have never learned how to understand human sexuality. Men who may very well be fucking their secretaries, or cheating on their taxes, or masturbating before they take the long walk to synagogue and then read from Torah, but their impurities can be rinsed away by the simple washing of hands. He does not seem to consider their impurities.
During break, the boys gathered in the student lounge mixing their cup-o-noodles. Chaim stood at the counter sermonizing something inane. I stood qu ietly stirring my hot chocolate. Then, I simply could not help myself. I look at Chaim, opened my mouth, and blurted, “I couldn’t stop thinking about your comments on women reading from the Torah. There were so many things I wanted to say that I just didn’t say.”
“Oh, really?” He smirked for the tenth time that day. “Like what?”
“Well, what about masturbation? How do you know a man hasn’t masturbated before he touches the Torah?”
“Easy,” He stands up straighter preparing us for his greatness, “We can’t know, but we just give them the benefit of the doubt.”
Huh? The benefit of the doubt? Do you know how many times a day people masturbate? Why are we giving people the benefit of the doubt? Oh right, because they’re men.
“Why do you assume that a woman has her period then?” I question.
“Also easy, you can’t ask a woman if she has her period” (because we all go around asking if people masturbate). “Thus, we assume that she does.”
“But,” I attempt to argue,” Don’t you think the woman knows if she has her period? Don’t you think her husband knows? Wouldn’t both of them make sure, she doesn’t touch the Torah?
“Ah,” He rubs his beardless chin as if he is a great rabbi, “a woman, can have her period at anytime.”
I guess technically, she could, but that comment speaks to the heart of the matter. A woman is constantly on the brink of impurity. At any moment, she could explode with all her womanly grossness—damaging everything holy in her path. She is in a perpetual state of worthlessness.
(I think my sister said it best, when she commented, “Wait, is the woman reading from the Torah or is she using it as a tampon?”)
No one actually touches the Torah scroll when they read it. They kiss it with their prayer shawl. The read from it with a yad. No one is lying naked with it. However, ritual impurity clings to a woman’s entire body. She cannot escape it. I realized that there is nothing I can say to make him change his mind. Dirty is dirty. Women are dirty; men aren’t. Period.
I walked out of the lounge. When I reached the classroom, I was alone. I stood over his notebook and the one book he actually brought to class. I thought of my own impurities: the possibility of a period at any moment, my Reform Judaism, my marriage to the a gentile, my immodest low-cut dress, my uncovered red-streaked blond curls.
So, I did the only thing I could do: I took my hand and touched his books.