November 24, 2005
Growing Girls Whole
Parshat Chaye Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)
"Isaac then brought [Rebecca] into the tent of his mother Sarah" (Genesis 24:67). Rashi reinterprets this verse as: "Isaac brought Rebecca into the tent, and behold, she was Sarah!" Rashi explains that the years Sarah was alive her Sabbath lamp remained lit, her dough stayed fresh, and a cloud of God's Presence rested upon her tent. Upon Sarah's death, the lamp guttered, the dough crumbled and the cloud dissipated. Enter Rebecca; return miracles.
Maharal explains that the lamp, the dough and the cloud refer to the three commandments assigned to women: candles, challah and niddah. The candles and the challah are respectively represented by the lamp and the dough. Niddah (menstrual impurity), therefore is linked with the miracle of the cloud, suggesting that the home of a woman who observes family purity laws is enveloped in a heavenly cloud.
The commentary around menstruation however are not always so embracing. Later in Rebecca's life, Torah tells us of her agonizing pregnancy, and the twins who "struggled in her womb." From the beginning, Jewish womankind has suffered a duality. One has only to look at halachic lexicon to find the duality of epithets that converge on her physical center, makor (source), eim (mother) and rechem (womb-compassion) speak of life and goodness, while kever (grave) and bet hatorfa (place of rot) speaks of death.
Less than a 100 years ago, the average age of menarche for American girls was almost 16. Today, 12 is considered late. Theories for such early onset range from the amount of growth hormones injected into the food we eat to the amount of electrical light we absorb. Regardless, it creates a dangerous duality in girls which I often see when working with a bat mitzvah. Boys are going through changes too at bar mitzvah, and if a boy's voice cracks while chanting haftarah there are good-natured smiles in the congregation. But there is something else splitting in girls, nearly invisible and painful to perceive. I watch during the course of a bat mitzvah how often girls begin the service with their hair in barrettes and their faces bright and exposed. By the end of the service they take the barrettes off, and try to hide darkly behind their hair.
In less than a century, girls have gone from corsets to thongs. They are inundated with social pressures from diet pills to plastic surgery. Girls physically mature now earlier than ever, while cognitively and emotionally they are still children. Contemporary society provides fewer social protections, especially with the dangers of Internet. Today, most girls don't receive a slap on the face from their mothers as initiation into womanhood, but they do learn to call it "The Curse."
The moment girls become menstruant is a critical moment for protecting their wholeness. Jewish law takes menstruation with the utmost seriousness. For moderns, it is tempting to brush aside the laws as archaic. But with such dismissal, we also dismiss the seriousness of a girl's coming of age. It is important to consider the sacredness of a girl's cycle not through a lens of fear, rather through a lens of life-affirmation that is central to our faith and critical to a girl growing up whole.
In many cultures, circumcision is performed on boys as a rite of puberty, at the age of Ishmael, 13. Circumcision in many cultures, it has been argued, is the male inorganic counterpart to menstruation, to the natural blood-covenant girls achieve. In Judaism, of course, circumcision is performed at Isaac's tender age of one week and a day. Instead, bar mitzvah is the male puberty rite. There is little ritual or liturgy on menstruation. Just as boys undergo brit milah (covenant of circumcision), let us consider the girl beginning menarche as entering brit niddah (covenant of menstruation).
What ritual can surround entering brit niddah? Anne Frank called her period "a sweet secret" in a line that her father edited out of the 1947 Dutch version of her diary, saying that it was unnecessary and unseemly to speak of such things. It is remarkable that this young girl qualified her "secret" with sweet. The higher levels of tzedakah also involve secrecy. It is a perfect opportunity to learn with a girl the eight levels of tzedakah. It would be fitting to associate the monthly periods with an act of giving and gratitude by learning and giving tzedakah from the start.
As menstruation ties naturally with the cycling of the moon, it would be appropriate to consider brit niddah as a part of a Rosh Chodesh ceremony. The blessings for the new moon are appropriately worded: "Our God and God of our ancestors, may the new month bring us renewed good and blessing. May we have long life, peace, prosperity and health, a life full of blessing, a life exalted by love of Torah and reverence for the divine; a life in which the longings of our hearts are fulfilled for good."
Adolescent girls need all the help they can get in this world. Let them not be burdened at this impressionable age with carrying a "curse," with a sense of medical infirmity or religious impurity. She, like every human being, is a microcosm of the Supreme One, in which nothing is lacking, and everything is whole and pure. May we all be embraced in clouds of glory.
Zoë Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah.