The Cycle of Holidays and the Jewish Woman by Miriam Biber
Volume 2 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1988 | Tishrei, 5749)
Once again the new year is upon us. We prepare to re-establish out commitment to God and renew ourselves for the upcoming year. This rejuvenation, however, is not an automatic process, but rather is the result of reflecting on the past year, regretting wrong deeds and resolving to improve ourselves. Through such a repentance process we can draw close to God and feel spiritually restrengthened for the new year. As the years go by, however, there is a danger that the repentance process becomes habitual and mechanical rather than uplifting and rejuvenating. Even if one is aspiring to change, a person might feel that he or she is in the same spiritual standing this year as he or she was last year (actually such an awareness is also a sign of growth). One can become quite disheartened when dwelling on the realization that he or she is fighting the same spiritual battles year after year. with no progress noticed. When trapped in this type of spiritual ?rut? or ?deadlock?, the Jewish year is experienced as a circle. After each successive year, an individual merely returns to the same starting point.
On the surface it seems that it is this cyclicataspect of Jewish life that can lead to such habituation. In truth, however, it is precisely this cyclical aspect which enables a person to reflect on his or her self and resolve to change. The Jewish holidays and calendar structure and sanctify time for us. to allow us to reflect back on our behavior. and then move forward. While we stand in Elul (the last month on the Jewish calendar) of 5748, we can recall what our behavior was like in Elul of 5747. If time was not structured in a cyclical fashion, but was instead linear and non-repetitive, we would have greater difficulty tracking our behavior. The holidays and their associated activities allow us to distinguish between the holiness of an ordinary weekday and the holiness of a Shabbat or Rosh Hashana. They enable us to appreciate the extra sanctity that is associated with these holy days and realize that each year, new holiness is brought into the world. Although we experience time as being circular it is best conceived as a spiral, which contains both the cyclical and progressive elements. We experience Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur year in and year out. Nevertheless, with each year there is an additional sanctity that is brought into the world providing the potential for spiritual growth so that we can move forward from one Rosh Hashana to the next in a spiraling progression.
Godliness and Spirituality
What is the relationship between the above discussion and the Jewish woman, which is our focus in this column? The Torah teaches us that in this world. Godliness and spirituality are expressed through the physical. Hence the ?laws of nature? as well as the biological make up of human beings reflect the spiritual workings of God. One obvious uncontested difference between men and women is that a woman's body operates on a monthly cycle upon which many of her physiological and emotional systems are hinged. A man does not have any corresponding cyclical changes in his physiology, but instead his body functions in a linear fashion. This fundamental physiological difference must teach us something about the spiritual differences between the two genders. In light of the previous discussion of the role of the spiraling aspect of time in Jewish life, we can hypothesize that women are somehow more associated with this concept than men. Let's take a closer look.
What ?spiritual? functions does a women's monthly cycle serve? First it provides her with an intimate biological time clock. At any time of the month most women know what point they are at in their cycle, giving them a way of structuring time that men don't have. We have just discussed the role of how cycles or spirals of time enable a person to reflect on behavior. It seems that this additional time mechanism could also help a woman reflect on her past month. Torah law reflects this difference between men and women's time clocks by not obligating women to time bound mitzvot. Since one function of the mitzvot is to sanctify time. a woman can achieve this through her natural cycle without needing the structure of time bound mitzvot. Many of the time bound aspects of the mitzvot serve to make a distinction between different times of the day and year. Similarly, a woman's cycle distinguishes between the holiness associated with different times of the month. A woman, with the proper awareness, can accomplish this spiritual goal through her innate biological clock.
Mitzvot: Enhance Awareness
Perhaps even more important than the concept of the biological time clock, the monthly cycle, with its associated variation in the capacity to produce life, helps a woman to realize that procreation is not totally within her human control. A woman's capacity to conceive varies according to the point of her cycle. At certain times of the month, women are unlikely to conceive, whereas at other times she is quite fertile. Hence, the monthly cycle and the onset of her menses are regular reminders that there are divine factors out of human control which dictate her capacity to create life. As discussed in previous columns, mitzvot serve to enhance our awareness of Godliness in our daily activities. They provide a mechanism for realizing that much of daily life is miraculous and controlled by God. A woman's cycle helps her to see that God is an equal, if not primary partner, along with the couple in the creation of life, which is the most physical and simultaneously most spiritual human activity.
There is an additional spiritual function to the monthly cycle, which is
experienced by married women observing the laws of family purity. As discussed
in an earlier column, contact between husband and wife is dependant upon the
stage of a women's cycle. Hence there are times when the couple can relate
physically and there are times when they must separate. This process of
separation and reunion parallels the relationship between the Jewish people and
God. On a historical level there have been periods of Jewish history when God's
presence rested openly amongst the Jewish people (e.g. when the
Returning now to our original discussion of the significance of the approaching New Year, it seems this time period has special significance for women. Given that the start of the year is a reminder to everybody about the cyclical and spiraling aspects of life, it seems that it is an appropriate time for women to reflect on how their monthly cycles enables us to sanctify time. While thanking God for all of the other blessings that he has given us. perhaps it is a fining time also to thank Him for creating women Ki?retzono ?according to His will? -- in a way which enables us to recognize and appreciate Godliness in a ?natural? way.