Black Like a Raven: Menstruation and Aesthetics

With my book, The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press) in production and due out later this year, I have finally been able to return to research I first conducted for my dissertation, which looked at the rabbinic laws of menstruation in light of Zoroastrian parallels. I hope to use the space of the Talmud Blog to think “out-loud” through some of the issues – large and small – that I suddenly find myself confronting as I turn this project into a book.  What I will be presenting are readings, meditations about gender, and (formerly) personal thoughts connected to the larger questions of meaning that one is not really “allowed” to ask in academic discourse. I hope readers will indulge me this virtual confession booth, and that you will chime in with your thoughts and reactions along the way.

Filipp Malyavin, "Whirlwind" (1906)

Filipp Malyavin, “Whirlwind” (1906).

Writing in the humanities is a consciously aesthetic form of expression. Yes, the register is critical, even “scientific.” But the truth is that most scholars study people and their cultural productions because humankind is at heart, beautiful and tragic, and ultimately, tragically beautiful. When the charity is absent, the writing does not just fall flat. It bubbles with a venom and scalds the reader.

What happens when the beauty of a certain facet of humanity – especially a religious phenomenon – comes off as unsavory and even disgusting to nearly everyone but the scholar who is totally devoted to its study?  I carried this heavy feeling with me while writing my dissertation on the rabbinic laws of menstrual impurity in light of corresponding Zoroastrian texts.  Why menstruation? Why impurity? Why gender politics and strange Zoroastrians, and the darkness of Babylonia, the distances between men and women, and particularly, the messiness of niddah with its rags, spotting and colors?

I recently came across a poignant midrash that I must have learned before yet it somehow never really registered. The text speaks foremost of the ever-relevant conundrum of finding something meaningful to say when the wellsprings have all dried up. I am sure it still speaks to contemporary rabbis racking their brains for sermon ideas during the harsh winter Sabbaths of Leviticus.

Leviticus Rabbah 19.3 ed. Margalioth 424   

ר’ שמע’  בר’ יצחק  פתר קרייה בפרשותיה שלתורה, אפעלפי שהן נראות כאילו כאורות כאילו שחורות לאומרן ברבים, כגון הלכות זיבה ונגעים, אמ’ הקב’ה הרי הן עריבות עלי.  הה”ד  וערבה  לי”י  מנחת  יהודה  וירושלם. תדע לך שהוא כן שהרי פרשת זב וזבה לא נאמרו באחת, אלא זו בפני עצמה וזו בפני עצמה,  “איש  איש  כי  יהיה  זב  מבשרו”, “ואשה  כי  יזוב  זוב  דמה”.

R. Shimʿon b. R. Yitzḥaq explained the verse [“(His locks are…) black as a raven” -Song of Songs 5:11] as referring to portions of the Torah.  Even though they can seem as if they are ugly, as if they are too black to discuss in public – for example the laws of discharges and skin diseases – the Holy One blessed is He said: “They are pleasing (ʿarevot) to me”.  This is what is said: “Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing (ʿarvah) to the Lord” (Malachi 2.15). You should know that this really is true. For the portion dealing with the zav and zava were not said as one, rather this one by itself and this one by itself: “When any man has a discharge issuing from his member” (Leviticus 15:2); “When a woman has had a discharge of blood” (Leviticus 15:25).

Leviticus Rabbah is a homiletical Midrash, which according to one school of thought means that – even if only very distantly – it reflects a form of public discourse that took place in the quaint synagogues of late antique Palestine.  One can almost see R. Shimʿon b. R. Yitzḥaq struggling mightily to find some comforting message for local synagogue attendees as they read Leviticus 15, with its bloody and seminal discharges.  In frustration, he nearly admits that these parts of the Bible are nothing short of revolting – they are as “black” as a raven.

The genius of this passage is the way it non-judgmentally establishes a distinction between human and Divine aesthetics, yet at the same time questions the validity of the human view. The passage turns on the modifier “seem” and the question of aesthetic “truth.”  In rabbinic aesthetics, black is seen as unattractive. Yet this beauty judgment is simultaneously turned on its head. The classical interpretation of the Songs verse “I am black but beautiful” is not far from “black is beautiful” since it calls into question the original aesthetical claim that black is not beautiful.

It is just as difficult to talk about hideous skin diseases, various bodily functions, and their governing rituals today as it was in the fourth century C.E. – although the reasons for this, in a secular age, may be different.  Even in late antiquity there were rabbis who wished that Leviticus 15 was shorter (something not too difficult to achieve, given its chiastic structure of a. irregular male discharge; b. regular male discharge; a’. regular female discharge; and b’. irregular female discharge). Yet God is depicted as lovingly lingering over the very topics that humans prefer to rush through. The message of this midrash is that human revulsion at menstruation is understandable, but ultimately misguided and immature. God is able to recognize the beauty of these topics which people incorrectly see as “black.” Of course the midrash does not suggest how one is to gain an appreciation of the “pleasing” nature of menstruation.

There has been much writing about the laws of Niddah since the feminist turn in Jewish studies (which I suppose dates back to the 1970s). Some of the scholarship is apologetic, some openly hostile, and while some succeeds in striking a balance of sorts. I suppose the fact that these laws were – and remain – profoundly meaningful sites of religious experience for many women (and men?) should somehow lead the way to seeing its beauty.  Even if the writing must be critical, and the male power-plays not shoved under the rug, there must be a way to achieve a beautiful, productive sympathy.

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19 responses to “Black Like a Raven: Menstruation and Aesthetics

  1. Beautiful. Similar struggles here, as you know, even though not always same solutions (if solutions there are).

  2. Great post, Shai, and a great project. Daniel Gold wrote a book (years ago) on aesthetics and the study of Religion. If you can’t find the title, I’ll dig it up. (My copy is downstairs in the back of my car.) What he tags is what you tag here, the intense interest in the aesthetics of religion on the part of those of us who study it, going back to the classical theorists of Religion. On a more personal note, this past year, a group of graduate students (women) sat with me and we read thru in translation the material on color shades in B.Niddah. We came to the conclusion that none of this has anything to do with “women.” It makes me think that because the Bavli is so theoretical and super-attenuated, that that might be a better place than midrash to consider the topic, although your source here is interesting (loving, tender). But sometimes a little alienation is a great thing. We all had a hard time taking the material “seriously,” and this, perhaps was the best starting point or entrance into the literature. I wouldn’t do this without Rachel Adler and Daniel Boyarin, both of whom have written about rabbinic source material and humor. In other words, if you are going to do aesthetics, then do it aesthetically. As soon as you bring politics and “identity” into it, you’re going to muck it up.

    • Thanks Zac. Actually, my entire project is not really about aesthetics, though as you know the intersection between aesthetics and Talmud continues to draw me I. I’m more interested in the constructions of meaning made by Babylonian Jews the menstrual rituals in the space of Sasanian Mesopotamia. It is not exactly about politics and identity, though the competition with Zoroastrians on the matter, and other religious communities sits at the center of my work. I just think that aesthetics, widely conceived, is a good entry-way for Westerners appreciating the “sense” of something. That here we have a religious community that sang liturgical poetry about menstrual rags (well at least their Byzantine co religionists). What can that and this tell us?

      • yes, yes, Shai, but what if it doesn’t “mean” anything. if this sounds a bit off the wall, see Michael Scwartz’s new’ish book The Signifying Creator, especially the reference to John Cage, a first in the history of Jewish Studies?

  3. First a quibble: you left out the (typically left out) play on words at start of the midrash,the verse in Song of Songs: “taltalim shehorot k’orev.” Orev-Arevot-Arva.

    More to the point, I think you misread the midrash. There is no distinction between divine and human aesthetics. Revolting things are revolting, but the laws governing them ” הלכות זיבה ונגעי” are pleasing. Perhaps the midrash suggests that one can gain an appreciation of the “pleasing” nature of menstruation by studying the halakhot (perhaps even even academically). However, this does not seem to transform the actual aesthetics of skin lesions, gonorrhea or menstruation themselves. It would be odd for the midrash to suggest that such things are aesthetically pleasing when a) things that impart tum’ah are almost always sources of disgust, and b) the invocation of tumah and niddah throughout the Bible as connoting revulsion and rejection by God.

    But is it really the aesthetics that bother you or the underlying construction of the female body? After all, blood itself is one of the aesthetic focci of the Temple cult. Blood itself is not revolting or it wouldn’t be collected and sprinkled-it is revered. It is only considered revolting when it comes from a certain source.

    • Strange thing, since an earlier version spelling out the arev, arva etc in parentheses. It is of course the hermeneutic ‘point’ of the passage, and really the point of the entire section (ג).
      Of course all along the midrash is not talking about the biological phenomenon of menstruation, rather the halakhot – or to be precise, parshiyot. And people even find the halakhot revolting. But that is because the physiology is seen as revolting. So in a sense, it is all about human versus divine reactions to menstruation and its rituals. When God declares the laws of discharges lovely, he is saying that the phenomena and its rituals are actually pleasing to him. It is a step beyond King David remarks at bBer 4b, where he celebrates his distinction from other kings in the fact that is hands are dirtied with the bloods. Here, the thing turns on the link between orev and arev – what is pleasing, or aesthetic.

      • It just occurred to me that your discussion is very apropos of the opening of this past week’s haftarah (if your custom is to read that of Aharei Mot).

  4. Winter Sabbaths? According to the current annual cycle, they’re in the spring, either right before or right after Passover.

  5. AS, I think you misunderstand the midrash. The verse is situated as a metaphor for portions of the Torah (“פתר קרייה בפרשותיה שלתורה”), so the discussion is not around the aesthetic ugliness or beauty in *actual* blood, discharges, lesions, etc., but about the aesthetic ugliness or beauty in *Torah discussions about those things*, as Shai said. They seem — to people — ugly *to read in public*, but they are beautiful and pleasing to God and that’s why God, as it were, even enumerates these laws at greater length than necessary.

    • That was precisely my understanding of the midrash. It seemed to me that Shai was conflating the two. On the other hand, without the revulsion to the actual thing, their laws would not have that aesthetic resonance.

      What puzzles me about the midrash is that those torah portions are not graphic by the standards of the descriptive richness available in modern languages. Perhaps if I had more daily exposure to what is being described it would evoke more of a visceral response. (I had a rather nasty abscess cut open a few weeks ago and it was more of an object of fascination that revulsion for me and the intern who witnessed the procedure.)

      In any event, are you trying to say that the aesthetic elements of the torah portion under consideration in the midrash are are structural and linguistic, not visual? That’s an interesting thesis.

      [on an unrelated note: is it not somewhat paradoxical that the most visually descriptive portions of the torah -the construction of the mishcan- are the most boring? ]

  6. Thanks, Shai. I’ve been struggling with this too, more than usual, recently. Part of my paper for the Meghillot conference this Thursday deals with “Blindness” as a metaphor for being sinful and susceptible to sin. I’m confronting once again the Qumran Community’s exclusion of people with disabilities, modeled on a biblical ideal of priestly perfection, as well as the seemingly-universal metaphor for darkness/blackness as negative set against the positives of light/white. If I could just leave this in the past, whether by positing Zoroastrian influence or otherwise, the dark/light dualism might not bother me so much. But the metaphors are still so very much alive in western culture. I can’t help feeling that even the fact that “light = enlightenment = purity = cleanliness” etc. makes “sense” to me implicates me in a process of perpetuating associations that have real, detrimental, effects.
    Observations like this http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/04/13/kids-thoughts-about-skin-color-and-beauty/, which give me some hope that “Black is beautiful” can be a credible message in western society, make me wonder– if the message is successful, will much of the past millenia of western literature become less accessible to readers in the near future?

    • I hesitate to say anything that might make you fell less guilty about perpetuating certain metaphoric associations, but metaphors like those drawing on the idea of blindness are intensely embodied and ingrained to human thought. I think that to a large extent you can change the way that people think without sanitizing language, and to the extent that you cannot, well, that’s human culture for you.

      After working closely for a number of years with a mentor who happens to be blind I can state with some degree of confidence that it is not metaphoric associations that are most problematic, just the perception that a person with a disability is less present and has less agency than others.

  7. Nice post, Shai. A point which supports your interpretation is that the Torah reading referred to in the Midrash would have obviously followed the triennial Palestinian cycle. Thus, these portions do not get “diluted” by adjacent sections and would have tended to stick out more, and would need to be addressed.

    • Interestingly verses 15:25-33 were not read together with the previous, rather with the following אחרי מות . (taken from Biblia Hebraica by Rud. Kittel)

  8. Shai, see Qillir’s very interesting use of your passage in a qedushta published by Spiegel (Avot ha-Piyyut, 115 l. 204 ff.

  9. Pingback: Difference and the Iranian Talmud | The Talmud Blog·

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