Lake Fairfax Park in northern Virginia, with its tantalizing water slides and charming boat rides, attracts thousands of visitors every year—young and old alike, singly, in twosomes, or in larger planned community outings. On a beastly torrid summer day, I went there with my family. Hundreds of folks pranced and splashed about in bathing suits. Being no exception to the norm, we were all in swimsuits, too.
Peripheral to the mainstream of swimmers were a few women in traditional Middle East garb, heavily scarfed, with one woman allowing only her eyes to show above and beneath the veiling of a black robe known as a chador or burka. Around her, little girls of her party scampered in lightweight play clothes, the breeze tossing their unveiled hair in the sunlight. I shuddered, thinking these little ones might well have “chadored” futures if they eventually go to live in strict Muslim communities.
Because there are so many women in the Washington area observing traditional Middle East rules of dress, most Virginians take little notice of these women any longer. But I do. Their mode of dress disturbs me. It symbolizes a patriarchal culture that allows by law and/or by religion greater freedom for males than for females.
Although I am well aware that many of these women may be deliriously happy with their circumstances, I have read enough to be disturbed by the subjugation of women in many countries where fundamentalists have instigated virtual enslavement of women. Enslaved women desperately need the emancipating message of Jesus that flows loudly and clearly from the New Testament gospels—a message appropriate to their situation, because Jesus lived his life addressing and opposing similar injustices of gender disparity in every encounter he had with women.
Unlike the woman in Proverbs 31 who seemed to have free access to the marketplace, Jewish scholars indicate that the women Jesus encountered had no such access. Due to the influence wielded by the venerable Hillel, scholar and president of the Sanhedrin (circa 30 b.c. to circa a.d. 10), policy in Jesus’ day closeted wives and daughters within their courtyard compounds. Rarely did they go anywhere unaccompanied by a husband, except to a well for water and to a stream to wash clothes.
Hillel has no reputation as a cruel tyrant. Quite the opposite. His credos (one a negatively stated version of the Golden Rule) sought to protect females in loving fashion from sexual predators. Women’s wombs had great value as incubators for future descendants of Abraham. Nevertheless, Hillel’s theories fostered not only cloistering of women, but heavy veiling—sometimes within the household itself.
Suffice it to say, Jesus grew up in a highly structured, male-dominated society that, while honoring women under the law, regarded them as inferior and filthy to the point of being unspiritual creatures, defiling men during their times of blood flow.
Jewish scholar Rachel Adler describes the categories to which men and women were assigned—men into the category called ruhniut (spirituality) and women into that called gashmiut (physicality),1 the latter too unclean for ritual participation or even instruction in Torah. Many Pharisees thought they were acting disrespectfully to Yahweh if they instructed women in sacred teaching.
Subjugation of women derives from the importance of the blood taboo, a subject thoroughly studied in the writings of Jewish scholars, because it had enormous implications for the way men and women lived their lives in ancient days and also how they live their lives today in conservative synagogue communities. Discussion of the blood taboo, equally vital to moderns—men as well as women—seldom if ever finds its way into sermons or teachings in the Christian community. Often, it does not appear in texts devoted to women’s rights or status in the church. Yet, we do Jesus and women a terrible injustice when we avoid it. In every New Testament gospel involving women, blood taboo ramifications have bearing.
Following such passages as Leviticus 15:19-30, ancient Jews observed a policy that stated that, during normal blood flow periods such as menstruation and following childbirth, a woman was a niddah. As such, she could not be in touching proximity to a male (from age thirteen on) since her contact with him—including a mere brushing of her finger against his hand—would defile him. Such defilement required the male to undergo a cleansing ritual and absence from minyan (quorum of praying men) for a set number of days based on the specific circumstances. Since the average household in ancient Palestine consisted of one small room, contact between the sexes could not be totally eliminated. Therefore, a niddah would have to leave the household and retreat to a compound or hut set aside for bleeding women.
In public, a male would avoid contact with any woman because she might be a niddah. So defiling was such contact to ancient Jews, Jewish scholar Rachel Biale in her text Women and Jewish Law reminds her readers that in Ezra and Ezekiel (in the Hebrew Bible) niddah is a metaphor for grossly sinful behavior of gentile nations or even Israel at its unrepentant worst.2 Christian translations of Bible texts do not emphasize this comparison, arguably because it would have no meaning to a society like ours in which niddahs participate fully in church ritual, even during the “kiss of peace.” Such contact—in synagogue or marketplace—would have been anathema in ancient Palestine.
With celibate males setting policy in the Christian church over hundreds of years, niddah defilement seemed irrelevant and was largely forgotten. In medieval times, if discussed at all, it was done behind closed doors in hush-hush fashion. As a result, congregations today are totally ignorant of the extraordinary way Jesus ministered to women. He turned the Pharisaical society upside down.
In point of fact, illiterate, unspiritual creatures who were thought to be too unclean a gender to study Torah or participate in liturgy were raised by the Messiah to spiritual equality with men. To underline this equality, Jesus went so far as to ask Martha and Mary to sit at his feet—the place recognized as specifically set aside for disciples (Luke 10:38-42).
It is beyond my understanding that niddah defilement still remains locked away on musty library shelves. In our present twenty-first-century society of secular equality, Christian policy toward women should reflect the way Jesus acted in the gospels. But it does not, mainly because we have scant information about the status of women who encountered Jesus and how he transformed their lives.
Ancient Jews lived in an earthy society in which sexuality and procreation played such a major part that laws and policy had to define gender differences in up-front fashion. Jewish scholars before and after the time of Jesus had to address the blood taboo forthrightly; it had (and still has) major importance to a Jewish way of life.
Moderns must never lose sight of the fact that in Old Testament times Jesus had not yet appeared on the scene to fulfill the law, eradicating discriminatory rules against niddahs and zavohs (women with continuous bleeding). Astonishingly, Rachel Biale tells us that a highly respected Talmudic scholar (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi in references to the Talmud, which was compiled after Jesus’ day) argues that, when Messiah comes on the scene, he will wash Jews with purifying water so that they can cease worrying about petty laws.3 Biale, a practicing Jew, does not believe Messiah has come in the person of Jesus. Yet, it is startling to note that Jesus’ treatment of women illustrates Rashi’s prediction perfectly.
In joyful fashion, Christian teachers, preachers, and scholars today should be more than willing to address the niddah question so that finally congregations can behold the awesome impact Jesus had regarding women’s spiritual equality with men. Menstruation impacts every encounter Jesus had with women: Mary and Martha in Luke 10; the women at the grave in all four gospels who were doing the anointing task because defiling corpse-cleaning was women’s work; Mary of Bethany’s nard-anointing of his feet in John 12 (filthy foot-washing relegated only to women); Mary the Virgin’s following a cleansing ritual in Luke 2:22; the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, who was victim rather than sinner, having been “divorced” (possibly because she was barren) by numerous husbands and tossed onto the street as rubbish; the woman caught in adultery in John 8—and the list goes on and on.
Above and beyond all these passages is the incident involving the woman in the crowd in Luke 8. I call this the chapter of the two daughters—one the daughter of an official, and one to whom Jesus refers as “daughter.”
The scenario goes as follows: A woman who is technically a zavoh rather than a niddah because her blood flow is abnormal slithers up to Jesus in a crowd. Her situation is desperate. For twelve years, she has not hugged or been hugged by father, brother, husband, or son. She has not even been handed anything by them. Her status of outcast forces her to act surreptitiously. She will just place a finger on the hem of Jesus’ garment.
Aha, but Jesus feels that touch.
Does he rebuke her? Does he suggest that stones be thrown at her?
Quite the opposite. He declares he felt the power leave him. His power has been transferred in extraordinary fashion to a zavoh—not to the males in that crowd. He turns to that woman and, calling her daughter, says her faith has healed her.
How many times have we heard that story? Dozens of times? Hundreds?
But how many times has it gone beyond the healing message? How often has teacher or preacher told the whole story about its being a rescue of a defiling creature despised by men? (It is a rescue from subjugation status, if you will, of all women in all ages.)
The men who witnessed this event knew they had seen a Messiah for whom they were not quite prepared, who came to make radical changes in their policies as he established his new covenant. Things would no longer be business as usual.
A further awesome and society-transforming scene deals with Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet in John 13. These men appealed to him not to do this, certainly, because in so doing he was taking on a filthy task normally assigned to women. More to the point, he told these men he expected them to do the same thing for others; they must never consider themselves superior to niddahs or zavohs.
It is worth noting that, in Scripture, Jesus does not advocate a role of superiority for women. Rather, he directed men to the servanthood posture that only women had occupied—a posture not exemplified by modern extremist feminist stridency. Customarily, whether in ancient or modern societies, history tells us, individuals, castes, and communities do not relinquish superiority and power voluntarily. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, the disciples did just that. Untold thousands of early Christians of both genders served humanity to the point of martyrdom.
As women take their places in all the diverse roles our contemporary age has to offer, the church community must see that it is anointed and equipped with a full understanding of the emancipating courage of its Savior. In a world where media portray graphic pictures of childbirth—no holds barred—and drugstore advertising informs youngsters as well as adults about menstruation pads and birth control devices and pills, the church can no longer continue to espouse Victorian prudery in avoidance of the Biblical passages about the blood taboo and how Jesus ministered to niddahs.
The time is more than ripe for church men and women to tear off their intellectual chadors so that the genderless, awesome love of Jesus can be presented to a suffering humanity: to veiled and enslaved women in the Middle East, as well as to our own congregations.
- Rachel Adler, “The Jew Who Wasn’t There,” in On Being a Jewish Feminist, ed. Susanna Heschel (New York, N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1983), 15.
- Rachel Biale, Women and Jewish Law (New York, N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1984), 154.
- Biale, Women, 161.