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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Observant Married Jewish Women and Sexual Life: An Empirical Study

by Michelle Friedman, MD (Posted on July 5, 2016)
Topics: Halakha & Modernity, Marriage & Family, Sex & Niddah

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Taharat haMishpahah, literally, “family purity,” refers to the series of Jewish laws and customs governing sexual behavior between husbands and wives. The laws of taharat haMishpahah need to be understood in the larger context of observant Jewish life, which seeks to elevate everyday behavior in light of a divine plan. According to this understanding of the religious Jewish mission, each and every action has the potential to be imbued with sanctity, or kedushah.  Taharat haMishpahah is considered one of the pillars of observant Jewish life.  Volumes are devoted to the laws of taharat haMishpahah, so a brief summary of this complex area will be incomplete. In short, taharat haMishpahah requires that husbands and wives abstain from all physical and sexual contact for the duration of a woman’s niddah time, that is, the length of her menstrual period plus an additional seven “clean” days. During the niddah period, observant couples adhere to a series of restrictions that are designed to prevent physical intimacy. These include refraining from physical touch such as holding hands, sharing a bed, or passing objects directly to one another. At the end of this approximate twelve-day separation, a woman immerses herself in the ritual bath (mikvah). After this, the couple is permitted to resume physical and sexual contact. Our exploration of the lived experience of taharat haMishpahah starts with recognizing that the system’s influence extends far wider than the domain of marital sexual life. Development of a sexual self is recognized as a normative process that begins in infancy and has physical, cultural, and emotional components. Thus, the centrality of taharat haMishpahah in observant Jewish life impacts on attitudes and behaviors regarding modesty; auto-eroticism; conduct between men and women outside of marriage; education of prospective brides and grooms; and the experience of intimate emotional and physical marital life given the rhythm of the menstrual cycle. The incorporation of these laws and including the fundamental concept of monthly sexual abstinence and renewal between husband and wife,  has been cited as a key factor in promoting and maintaining Jewish marital and familial happiness.[1] Other theorists have stressed that the laws surrounding taharat haMishpahah act to harness and discipline physiological drives into  a framework of kedushah (holiness)—not necessarily happiness—represented by marriage.[2] We respect, yet do not attempt to resolve, these perspectives. We perceive the laws of taharat haMishpahah to be a given, not subject to negotiation. We understand that these regulations are embedded in a larger context of religious life. Women who observe taharat haMishpahah are almost certainly keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath and holidays, educating their children in Jewish schools, and otherwise maintaining a high degree of religious affiliation. Our efforts are directed to an empiric investigation of the sexual life of Jewish women committed to observant religious practice. The goal of our inquiry into the intimate lives of these women is to better understand this deeply personal experience from as scientifically rigorous a perspective as possible.

This article was originally published for the Ideals journal. To read the full article, click here.