This article is based on a conversation with Dr. Melanie Landau and on Dr. Landau’s piece, “For Tisha B’Av, A Feminist Reading of Lamentations.”
Jews are deep in it with the written word and with books. True to form, on the holiday of Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the year, Jews read the Book of Lamentations, a collection of poems that speaks bleakly of mourning, loss, and lament emanating from the destruction of the Temple. The Book of Lamentations is dark; its imagery intends to unsettle the reader. For our purposes, one passage in particular is worth investigation:
“Sinning she sinned, Jerusalem. For this an outcast / niddah* she became. All who honor her despise her,
for they saw her nakedness. Also her, she is moaning, turned around backward. Her blood / tum’ah (spiritual impurity) in her skirts, she didn’t remember her end after, she descended wondrously. There is no comforter for her. God, see my poverty, my humiliation, for an enemy became great.”
— LAMENTATIONS CHAPTER 1, VERSE 8-9
*Niddah is one element of the Jewish laws of spiritual purity. Niddah refers to the physical status of a menstruator during or immediately after they have bled from their uterus, most commonly during menstruation. The term translates literally to “excommunication,” “exclusion,” or “isolation.” Traditionally, a menstruating, married women refrains from touching her husband during the length of menstruation and for seven days after.
At first glance, it might be upsetting to see the functions of the female body employed as a metaphor for the shame and humiliation associated with the destruction of the Temples. As a people, the Jews were “naked” and exposed. Is the evocation of menstruation merely an offensive appropriation of a uniquely female bodily function? Or, could we perhaps interpret it as a way to address the reality of the history of oppression of the female body?
How many women on this planet have been sexually violated, through word or deed? How many women felt the humiliation and shame and ascribed those emotions to being female? As we grew from girls into women, how many of us lost connections to ourselves as our bodies changed, becoming ever more convinced that our self worth is inextricably bound up with our physical attractiveness? How many of us have endured eating disorders, mental unwellness, and distortions of our abilities because of the stigmas associated with the female body? How many of us have needed to recover from the generational heaviness of repression and disgust related to menstruation? The relationships women have to their bodies can be painful in myriad ways. As painful, perhaps, as watching one’s holiest sanctuary burn to the ground.
Perhaps this year on Tisha B’Av, you’ll take the opportunity to tap into the weight of what it has been like to be in relationship to yourself and to the womanhood on Earth.
As individuals and as a collective, women know suffering. But what follows suffering? Healing, redemption, and rebuilding. As At The Well continues to work towards helping women heal and awaken, together we learn to pay attention to our bodies, to love them, and to reclaim the amazing power they hold. Together, with love, we rebuild.
During this month’s Well Circle, set aside time to witness each other. Take turns being open and honest about your relationship to your female body. What has your journey been like? When have you felt connected and proud? Ashamed and humiliated? When has your relationship with your physicality been harder? When has it been easier? What caused it to change? Make sure to listen deeply, to witness compassionately, and hold space for each other through the work of rebuilding the holy temples of our own bodies.