Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Thursday, April 25, 2002
Our topic for the day is: Cloning, Gay Priests and Menstruation.

One of the less-well-known details of Jewish law is the prohibition of intercourse with a woman who is menstruating or has menstruated within the past seven days. (I promise, this is not going to get gory.) The area of law related to this matter is called niddah, and the preferred English-language euphamism is "family purity." I say less-well-known in spite of the fact that the biblical sections dealing with this matter (primarily Leviticus 15:19ff) are far from obscure; rather, I think it is generally assumed that this is an aspect of biblical-era practice that has been abandoned along with animal sacrifice and other "primitive" rituals. (Indeed, the verse is specifically mentioned in the famous "Dear Dr. Laura" letter that made the rounds of the internet a couple of years ago, mocking the notion that the bible could be cited against homosexuality given all the other wacky things the bible says, a letter that was later modified into a speech by President Jeremiah Bartlett on The West Wing.)

But while the subject is not part of typical UJA fundraising chatter, niddah is indeed practiced by hundreds of thousands of strictly observant traditional Jews around the world. The basics of the laws are simple: intercourse is forbidden while the woman is menstruating, and, once a menstrual period is complete, a woman must wait seven days before going to a ritual bath to be purified (in a procedure similar to and historically related to Christian baptism). In general, this means that a traditionally observant Jewish married couple remains celibate for two weeks out of every four, and marriage follows a regular cycle of separation and sexual reunification every month.

Why on earth would anyone do this? What possible reason could there be for following such a regimen? In general, traditional Jews argue that the commandment is primary and the explanation secondary. There are certainly reasons for all of God's commandments, but we may be unable to discern them because we are only human, and so we should simply follow them and hopefully by following them their reason will become clear. This is fine for women who have already decided to accept the yoke of the commandments, but is unlikely to be persuasive to someone outside the system. So I think it is appropriate and even productive to speculate about the reasons for laws, even if one does not observe them all oneself.

One explanation that I find very persuasive is that niddah is a kind of mini-mourning. Judaism is, above all, a religion of life. "Choose life" is Moses' final message to the people he led through the desert before they enter the Land of Israel. The unique power that women have been granted by God is the ability to bring forth new human life. When menstruation happens, it is a sign that, this month at least, no such life was brought forth. Another one of a woman's finite supply of eggs has been released and, having been unfertilized, unable to implant or dislodged from its point of implantation, has been expelled to die. Another potential life is not to be. This is a not a great tragedy, usually, though it is a time of great sadness for women who are trying to conceive, or feel that they may have conceived. But, in a way that registers slightly or largely, something significant to the universe at large - the potential for a new human life, a unique consciousness, made in the image of God - has been lost. The period of separation during and after menstruation is a period of mourning for this loss.

Why is this expressed as "impurity"? Well, impurity is the opposite of holiness. Before menstruation, when a woman can potentially become pregnant, that capacity makes her more holy than she normally is. She is on a higher plane, spiritually, like an electron bumped up to a higher energy state by collision with a photon. Once she has menstruated (once the electron has emitted a photon, and dropped to a lower energy state), this capacity is temporarily lost, and this loss of holiness (relative, not total) is impurity. To be purified, she needs to emerse herself in living water (the mikvah, or ritual bath). This explanation also makes sense of the otherwise peculiar laws for purification after pregnancy (Leviticus 12:2ff). When a woman gives birth to a boy, she is impure for seven days and must then go to the mikvah to be purified. When she gives birth to a girl, she is impure for fourteen days. Why? Well, why is she impure at all? Because, while pregnant, she is in a hightened spiritual state as she exercises her power to bring forth new life, and post-partum she has experienced a spiritual drop, expressed as ritual impurity. But if she is carrying a girl, she is doubly exalted, because she is bringing forth a being who will herself be able to bring forth new life. Hence, post-partum, the doubly deep relative spiritual drop, and hence the double period of impurity.

Why am I going on about this today? Well, I read the following article in the Times (notice courtesy of Instapundit) by Michael S. Gazzinga, a member of President Bush's bio-ethics panel, articulating his disappointment that the President has made a decision about research cloning without first allowing the panel to come to its conclusions. And, in the course of his argument in favor of such cloning, he says the following:

At this point [once a blastocyst is created in a lab] we encounter a conflation of ideas, beliefs and facts. Some religious groups and ethicists argue that the moment of transfer of cellular material is an initiation of life and establishes a moral equivalency between a developing group of cells and a human being. This point of view is problematic when viewed with modern biological knowledge.

We wouldn't consider this clump of cells even equivalent to an embryo formed in normal human reproduction. And we now know that in normal reproduction as many as 50 percent to 80 percent of all fertilized eggs spontaneously abort and are simply expelled from the woman's body. It is hard to believe that under any religious belief system people would grieve and hold funerals for these natural events. Yet, if these unfortunate zygotes are considered human beings, then logically people should.

It may be hard for Gazzinga to believe that such religious belief systems exist, but they do. One of them is possibly the world's oldest living religion (the competition being Hinduism, whose origin is hard to date), the wellspring religion of Christianity and Islam, the two largest religions (by population or geographic extent) in the world. So there.

The reason that such a belief seems inexplicable is because, to the modern mind, inherent value is expressed as a matter of rights, which are an all-or-nothing thing. Hence my objection to Ramesh Ponnuru yesterday (and thanks, Instapundit, for linking to it). He's a pro-life absolutist: a zygote is a baby, end of story. And he can't understand why one would have any objection to treating a zygote any differently from a hunk of iron ore but for holding to such a syllogism. But, in fact, one can hold to the view that potential human life - a living organism which, under the right conditions, will develop into a human being - has inherent value by virtue of that potential. Contra the British government, you can hold such a view even if the organism is less than 14 days old, and may yet divide into two unique beings. You can even hold such a view without knowing whether the organism exists or not, whether an egg has successfully fertilized at all, knowing only that some degree of such potential exists inside a woman at a given time.

Jonah Goldberg complains about the success of the fringes and the decay of the center, particularly with respect to free speech but also with respect to abortion and guns and other matters. But this is a natural consequence of rights-talk. If the whole debate is a matter of right, then either the object of scrutiny has rights (a fetus to life or a woman to an abortion) or doesn't. If it has rights, these are absolute, and if it doesn't then it has no rights at all. A zygote either has a right to life or it is a mere thing. But that's not what our moral intuitions say, or at least it's not what mine say. Mine say that nothing connected with bringing forth life is morally neutral; all related activities are imbued with inherent significance. We don't mourn the passing of a zygote; that would be absurd. But we do note its passing, and the significance of its passing to God and not only to our individual desires.

There is another, oft-mentioned reason for the practice of niddah, a moral reason rather than a metaphysical one. Traditional Judaism has an elaborate system of ethics revolving around the relation between the sexes, and niddah is at its heart. Very observant men will not touch a woman to whom he is not married. Indeed, he won't allow himself to be alone in a closed room with her. Why? To avoid the temptation to sin by engaging in sexual activity with a married woman (one of the gravest sins) or with a woman who is impure (a serious violation of the law). Niddah, then, is an aid to sexual continence. And yet it operates within marriage as well; even with his own wife, there are times when a traditionally observant man cannot touch his wife, cannot sleep in the same bed with her. Sexual relations within marriage are sanctified, but only if they are themselves restrained by the structure of niddah, and the periodic abstinence it imposes.

The point is not to suppress desire, or to make sex dirty or evil. The point is to train one's desires, as a rose bush on a trellis, to follow the paths that will lead to virtue, and not those that lead to sin. It is to make one's animal desires, an essential part of our nature without which, in the rabbinic formulation, no one would build a house or found a business or start a family, serve our higher natures and, thereby, serve God in this world. And the point is not to restrict the capacities or opportunities of women. Traditionally observant Jewish women are professionals and businesswomen as well as homemakers; their ability to participate in modern society and the economy, should they wish it, is unrestricted by their religion. Indeed, within the traditional world they are taking on increasingly important roles in religious life itself, becoming experts and, in all but name, decisors on questions particularly related to niddah. (And lest this seem like a faint accomplishment, it should be recalled that a rabbi is, essentially, a legal decisor; rabbis have no sacramental function.) Rather, the point (or one point) is to put a certain social distance between the sexes, across which they can relate more correctly and, indeed, more equally.

This was the aspect of niddah that made me think of the current Catholic Church scandals, and the controversy it is arousing regarding gay priests. Let me say first that, as I have blogged before, I think the real scandal has nothing to do with either church teaching on sexuality or its flouting by sexually active gay priests; the real scandal is about clericism, the heirarchy's instinctive preference for self-protection at the expense of their flock. This is a species of cowardice that has repeatedly plagued the Catholic Church and had brought on it most if not all of the trials and persecutions that the church has suffered in this world. That said, one of the undercurrents of the opposition to a gay clergy (or gay scout leaders, or gay teachers) is the assumption that the likelihood is too high that gay men in such intimate situations will sexually abuse the boys under their charge, and this is often translated as the assumption that gay men are more likely to victimize teenage boys than straight men are teenage girls. But the latter does not follow from the former.

Gay men must grow up in a world of temptation essentially unimaginable to straight men. We assume a casual intimacy between individuals of the same sex - less than we used to, but we still do. If we pulled down the barriers to intimacy between youths of different sexes as fully as we inevitably do between youths of the same sex, there would be rampant sexual activity, significant sexual victimization, and potentially serious damage to healthy psycho-sexual development. (Oh, wait. We have done that, and that's precisely what happened.) Gay men grow up in a world where these physical barriers are all down, and the only thing standing between their desires and their ruin is their self-control. It is a testament to the incredibly strong character of most gay men that there are not more incidents of victimization; the temptations are surely more frequent than for straight men and girls.

Nonetheless, character is not the only question. Exposure to temptation and the experience of frequent resistence is probably a good way to build up some degree of immunity. But it is also and unavoidably a constant risk. And it is reasonable for a society to take precautions to protect against temptation. Of course, it is only fair to apply these sorts of rules across the board. So long as we have a high tolerance for intimacy, even promiscuity, among heterosexuals, even between professors and students and Presidents and interns, then it's hard to argue with a straight face that gay men - who are probably, as a class, better able to resist temptation than straight men are - should be excluded from roles that will bring them into intimate situations with youngsters of the same sex. So perhaps the right way to get a handle on this whole question is in the context of our social sexual ethics generally. We don't need to make a fetish of the question of gay scoutmasters or gay priests. We need to address the more general social question of proper sexual relations, and what the proper social relations are that would reinforce these.

And this brings us to the question of gay marriage or its equivalent. I'm not going to spend a lot of energy on this topic right now - there's more coming specifically on it, and specifically from a Jewish context. But I will just note that, if there is no prescribed social role that gay men can fit into, that can train their desires in a Godly direction, then the only way to bring about a reevaluation of our social-sexual mores would be by forcing gay men back into the closet, stigmatizing them for having desires that cannot be socially assimilated. And, quite apart from the direct evil this would mean, a reasonable argument can be made - is being made by Andrew Sullivan among others, precisely apropos of the church pedophilia scandals - that the closet is the source of much gay pathology, and hence a breeding ground for precisely the kind of horrors that have occurred under church auspises. I have always viewed the gay marriage question as more a matter of wrongs than of rights - that is to say, it's not a question of whether gays have a right to marry but of whether society can maintain a healthy code of sexual morality without doing grave wrong to innocent gay people, and other innocents in consequence.