Early this morning, in a gray, chilly rain, around ten of us went to the Western Wall (the Kotel) to say morning prayers. It's always very moving (and sometimes upsetting) to go to the Kotel. I've been there in summer and fall, alone, with our kids and with groups, to a bar mitzvah and a paratrooper regiment induction (all Israeli military take their oaths there), when I was first pregnant 30+ years ago, and placed a prayer for our new child's health into one of the cracks, and countless other times. One thing remains true. There's the
really big men's side....
and the really small and usually (though not today) ridiculously crowded women's side. Surprisingly, the separation, like that in the synagogue, doesn't bother me. If I were a young mother whose sons and husband were sitting together while I sat alone, I might feel differently but for some reason I like being with my "sisters" on the women's side, not worrying about the spiritual condition of anyone but myself. It's peaceful.
Of course, in all parts of observant Judaism there's an undertone of the perplexing - why must women and men be apart for so many of life's critical moments? Some of the rules, however they are justified, are difficult and I'm struggling to be available to understand them. The toughest right now, because we've just been learning it, are the Laws of Family Purity and the physical separation of husband and wife any time there is a presence, or recent presence, of menstrual blood. It's confusing enough dealing with periods, and the "clean" days after one's period ends, which must pass before any kind of physical contact (not just sex) is permitted. Of course rules like these are observed to different degrees by different couples. Some make token acknowledgment of the requirements. Some sleep in separate beds. Some don't sit on the same couch if there is only one cushion. SOME won't even pass a bottle of milk from one hand to the other but place the bottle on the table for the other to retrieve. OK. That's a choice - it all comes from brief mentions in the Torah, this is how it's been interpreted and it's so private that each couple finds its own way of living within the law. Women also find their own ways of dealing with what could seem a real stigma. One of my favorite teachers says it's a time to "reclaim one's body for oneself" and further, that the physical restrictions cause couples to deal more openly in verbal terms with many of life's issues, because physical contact isn't part of the equation. I just listen and work to be open-minded - I have learned that much about this world into which I've moved becomes intelligible over time - and not to condemn that which I haven't had a chance to absorb.
Even more confusing and the hardest of all, for me, are the rules of childbirth and miscarriage. Because we bleed after childbirth, once we are free of birth pains and no longer in distress, in many families the husband does not touch his wife again after that initial support during birth, until the bleeding stops. One rabbi's rule: "Help physically as much as you need to during labor - but the minute the baby is born - no more." Others say that a post-partum woman is still "sick" so deserving of as much love and affection as she requires. The same divisions exist after a miscarriage. The bleeding preempts physical contact once the initial trauma is over. This is tough stuff. (There's also lots to say about the Mikvah - a ritual bath married women visit before resuming sexual relations after periods or childbirth. I learned an enormous amount about that today from a generous young, newly-married friend who's also on this trip. But I think it's another post altogether. I acknowledge that here so you don't think I've omitted it altogether.)
I have waited over a week since our class about this before I posted, in order to allow myself time to think about it. I've brought myself to a position of tolerance and acceptance; those who believe that this is the way God wants us to live, or believe that these are God's laws which cannot be broken no matter how we feel -- these loving souls should "live and be well" within the life's rules they've chosen. I'm through with condemnations of everything I don't agree with. I used to think so many things -- things that this life has taught me were just ONE WAY of seeing the world. I'm working on reaching that attitude toward these rules of "family purity."
They arise today because of this trip to the Kotel - just one more separation -- that placed this new family information in sharp relief. I've been troubled by it - probably always will be. But I consider it real growth that I'm working to understand, not deride, these ideas. What better place to do that than in this holy city?