Marie-Helene Congourdeau

title.none: Marienberg, Niddah: Lorsque les juifs conceptualisment la menstruation (Marie-Helene Congourdeau)

identifier.other: baj9928.0702.008 07.02.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Marie-Helene Congourdeau, CNRS, Paris, mhfc@noos.fe

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Marienberg, Evyatar. Niddah: Lorsque les juifs conceptualisment la menstruation. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2003. Pp. 366. ISBN: $35.00 2-251-44246-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.02.08

Marienberg, Evyatar. Niddah: Lorsque les juifs conceptualisment la menstruation. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2003. Pp. 366. ISBN: $35.00 2-251-44246-4.

Reviewed by:

Marie-Helene Congourdeau
CNRS, Paris

Evyatar Marienberg is a young Israeli historian who focuses on the comparative study of beliefs and practices in Jewish and Christian communities. This book is part of his thesis submitted to the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris) in 2002. In it he analyses the beliefs and practices with regard to Niddah from Biblical times to the present, focusing on Mediaeval period.

The Hebrew word Niddah has three meanings: the menstrual blood itself, a woman in menses, who is considered impure until she is purified in a ritual bath, or the impure period during the menses (cf. n. 1 p. 23). E.M. announces at the outset that his study, which deals with a universal phenomenon through specific sources, cannot be bound by any strict periodisation; the cultures he discusses used writing, and "texts produced in a given place and time often influenced other places and times" (21). He nevertheless succeeds in illustrating several developments.

The first chapter (23-41) presents laws concerning menstruation, principally those expressed in Leviticus (Lv 15-18): the woman with menses is excluded from certain daily acts and practices. E.M. notices that in Biblical texts we find two kinds of verses: in some, contact with a woman with menses makes others impure (transgression requires rituals of purification); in other verses, this contact is forbidden (transgression involves sanctions). This distinction, which probably corresponds to different strata of the text, is not found in Talmudic sources, where all these laws are placed on the same level. Consequently, Rabbinic law is more restrictive than Biblical law: the sages seek to place an additional barrier in order to eliminate any risk of unintentional transgression. Any flow of female blood is considered menstrual, and the period of flow is lengthened to include seven "clean" days, that is, the woman is niddah until the seventh day after the flow ceases.

The second chapter (43-72) discusses the explanations given by the sources of the very existence of menstruation. The question is whether menstruation is a natural phenomenon or a curse? The notion of menses as a curse, absent from the Bible, appears in both the Babylonian and the Jerusalemite Talmud where it is linked with Eve's fall. Adam is the blood of the world; Eve, who gave him Death through her disobedience, has to bear in her body the penalty of this shed blood. This idea, spread throughout Mediaeval Judaism, is not found in Christian sources which, in turn, suggest that Jewish men had menses just as women. This fantasy, which led to ritual murder (according to the acts of a trial in Hungary in the fifteenth century Jewish men used Christian blood as a remedy against their menses), drew on Mt 27, 25: "His blood shall be on us and on our children!" Marienberg draws a parallel between both beliefs by showing how, in both communities, the loss of blood appears as a sign of the "guilt of a group with regard to the murder of a mythical figure" (NB he states that his use of the word "mythical" does not call into question the historicity of Jesus). In the face of these negative conceptions he also notices several, albeit fewer, positive ones, such as that whereby the menses are a means given to women in order to evacuate superfluous humours.

The third chapter (73-158) concerns the ban of sexual intercourse during the menses. Noting that this ban exists in many cultures, Marienberg first analyses some non-specific explanations. Historians have already discussed several: impurity (which reverses the question: why are menses impure?); sterility (though the notion of sterility during the menstrual period is not universal); and the anxiety of men when confronted by the mysterious powers attributed to women with menses. We find afterwards that some explanations are connected with the corpus of texts. Marienberg begins by questioning the sanction incurred by transgressors. The word used by Leviticus to designate the consequence of transgression implies punishment by heaven, not by men (analysis of krt/karet). However, some Christian authors suggest that the Jewish Law intended the death penalty for anyone having sexual intercourse with a woman with menses. The origin of this change is difficult to ascertain: it is not found in the Greek Septuagint which follows the Hebrew text in simply stipulating the exclusion from the community (exolethreuth sontai). On the other hand, the Vulgata translates this by interficientur (will be put to death). It seems to me that the inquiry should be pushed further by analyzing the patristic commentaries of Leviticus in order to determine at what exact time this change occurred. It does not concern only the Latins, for Aeneas of Gaza says that Jewish Law prescribes the stoning of the leprous father because he did not respect his wife's impurity. Could Jerome's translation have been based on a Hebrew text different from that of Massoretes? In my opinion the question remains open.

Next comes the analysis of justifications of the ban on sexual intercourse. Marienberg poses the question of the perpetuation in Christianity of bans considered outdated by the new Law. This concerns the entire relation of Christianity to Leviticus, which in itself would require much study, and Marienberg merely picks out two trends in Christianity. Whilst some texts such as the Didascalia of the Apostles claim that the Christians have been freed from the bans of the Law, others, such as the Ps.-Clemens, recommend their strict observance. In my opinion, this inquiry should have been more contextualised: the position of Ps.-Clemens is coherent, given that he belongs to a Judaio-Christian milieu, whereas the Didascalia eminates from a Pauline milieu.

The novelty in Late-Antiquity was the emergence of a medical explanation related to the popular belief that intercourse during menses produced lepra in the baby. E.M. shows that the difference between those who think the ban is motivated by danger incured (it is forbidden because it is dangerous) and those who consider the disease a punishment for transgression (it is dangerous because it is forbidden) exists in both cultures. He tries to discern the origin of the belief that a baby conceived during the menses will be leprous (does this come from the Jews or the Christians?). But he comes to the conclusion that this inquiry cannot be followed inasmuch as the Jewish texts are based on oral sources which are difficult to date. The chapter goes on with an analysis of Mediaeval sources which show a reinforcing of the bans in the Jewish world, whilst the Christian ones remain divided on account of the ambivalence of Jewish Law.

The subsequent chapters concern mainly questions specific to Rabbinical and Mediaeval Judaism. Chapter 4 examines the status of the "son of Niddah" (ben Ha-Niddah), that is to say the child conceived during the menses (159-213). Marienberg examines the debates on this subject in order to establish whether it is assimilated to the Mamzer, or the product of illegitimate intercourse (even in the case of a legitimate couple). He then analyses the manner in which, in anti-Christian polemics, the old theme of Jesus-mamzer was developped in the Middle Ages into the theme of Jesus-ben Ha-Niddah, perhaps in reaction to the Marian cult in Western Christianity. In an excursus on Mediaeval Scholasticism Marienberg examines the question of a possible connexion between Jesus-foetus and the menstrual blood of Mary. Some Mediaeval theologians suggested that Jesus cannot have been conceived from menstrual blood which is totally impure; Thomas of Aquinas argues that beside menstual blood and that from which babies are conceived there was an third, intermediary sort.[1] Unfortunately Marienberg does not cite the seventh-century parallel in Maximus Confessor, according to whom Christ assumed "our human nature in an ineffable means from the virginal and immaculate blood of the All-Pure and Mother of God. United to this blood as to semen, the Word became flesh without ceasing to be God by essence" (opusc. 3) [2]. The chapter ends with a discussion of the problem of the ben Ha-Niddah in contemporary Judaism, mainly in connexion with marriages between orthodox and non-orthodox Jews.

The last two chapters treat practical questions concerning Jewish women and the menses, including their conduct in the Synagogue (215-243): instead of not attending, which would have revealed their condition to the whole community, some chose simply to refrain from looking at the rolls of the Torah; precautions on coming out ot the ritual bath (245-284): since the bath is necessary before recommencing sexual intercourse, others could induce that a woman coming out of the ritual bath would have intercourse with her husband, and therefore it was important to take care that the first creature she meets cannot endanger her future feotus. Both chapters stress the importance of the woman's regard: a woman with menses can bring misfortune upon whatever she looks at; and inversely, whatever a purified woman looks at can bring misfortune to the child she will conceive.

The book concludes with two appendices: the twenty-third chapter of Sha'arei Dura and Bar?ta of Niddah and Niddah in exegetic work of Nahmanide. From this book we learn details of various teachings. Firstly, it highlights the diverse interpretations within Jewish and Christian cultures, vis-à-vis the same scriptural corpus. This diversity is evident in the Biblical text and it increases in the Christian world, where there were divergent opinions on the status of ancient bans under the new Economy. We are informed also about the child conceived during menses, and the tension between prescriptions of prudence (refraining because it was dangerous) and moralism (refraining because it was forbidden). Finally, the author highlights a process of increasing severity: the Talmud introduced the notion of seven "clean" days which extended the duration of exclusion. The Middle Ages saw the reinforcement of most of these bans.

An anthropological, historical and hermeneutical inquiry, this book, in spite of the difficulties posed by periodisation, raises many very important questions and shows how some very old debates still influence our time. The style is pleasant and lively, without compromising intellectual rigour. Readers with a knowledge of Hebrew will appreciate the citation of the Hebrew text of the main sources in the foot notes.

1. Cf. on these questions M. Van der Lugt, Le ver, le démon et la Vierge. Les théories médiévales de la génération extraordinaire. Une étude sur les rapports entre théologie, philosophie naturelle et médecine, coll. "L'âne d'or," Paris, Belles Lettres, 2004.

2. Cf. my article "Sang féminin et génération chez les auteurs byzantins," Cahiers du CRISIMA 4, 1999, 19-23.