Book review: The Hour of Sunlight

On bodies, blood, and blessings

Here's a question I've been asked but have never known how to answer: is there a blessing for menstruation?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which American culture teaches women to have negative feelings about our bodies. One of the subtle ways in which this happens, I think, is in the shame we're taught to feel about even mentioning menstruation, much less experiencing it.

People generally don't talk about menses in polite company. And when we do, we use euphemisms. (When I was a teenager, people said "on the rag." I'm not wild about that term, though it's slightly better than the curse.)The point, though, is that it's not a curse. Each month when my uterus sheds its lining, that's a sign that new life isn't growing in my womb this time around, but that doesn't change the reality that my body can be a home for new life, and that's incredible.

There are times when menstruation can be a heartbreak. For women (and their partners) who struggle with infertility or experience miscarriage, who yearn for a pregnancy, the monthly return of bleeding can be a source of tremendous sorrow. I remember the first few periods after my miscarriage. The bleeding and the cramping reminded me of that awful morning in Colorado when I had woken to discover my pregnancy over. I don't want to gloss over that.

But that doesn't make the bleeding itself wrong, or gross, or something to be ashamed of. This is something which cis-gendered women -- half of the human population! -- experience every month from puberty until menopause, except when we're pregnant (and, for some women, during the early months of nursing). Our wombs grow the stuff they would need to support a fertilized egg, and then when no egg implants, our wombs naturally let that stuff go. This is a natural part of life, no more "gross" than birth or death -- both of which, granted, may be scary, but to my mind anything which connects us with birth and death is by definition holy.

Birth and death (and, by extension, blood) offer opportunities to connect with something deep and meaningful, something far greater than ourselves. This is, I think, one way to understand Torah's language around taharah and tum'ah. It's not a matter of being "pure" or "impure." When I am not in contact with birth, death, or blood, I am tahor: a spiritual blank slate. When I am in contact with these things, I become tamei, charged-up with a kind of holy energy, vibrating at a different frequency for a little while because I have touched something beyond. (This is not, by the way, a new idea; I've written about it before, drawing on a number of prominent theologians and interpreters who make this case.)

There's a lot of talk lately in the American public sphere about women's bodies and women's health. I recommend Emily L. Hauser's Dear GOP: You do know how pregnancy works, right? (and, for a bigger-picture look at how our culture speaks to/about women, her post Like a girl) and Jessica Winters'  recent essay Are Women People? (also Catherine MacKinnon's scathing Are Women Human?, written in 1999 but still powerful) as well as the excellent series of recent Doonesbury cartoons which some newspapers have published on the Op-Ed page instead of the cartoon page. (Here they are: Part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six.)

Watching these debates unfold, I find myself wondering whether the world might be a better place if we celebrated women's bodies instead of allowing ourselves to be made ashamed.

So is there a bracha for menstruation? Rabbi Elyse Goldstein asked that question (see her essay Reappropriating the Taboo at My Jewish Learning), and came up with an answer I think is pretty neat. When she bleeds each month, she recites the blessing

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֶלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁעָשַׂנִי אִשָּׁה / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, she'asani ishah:
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has made me a woman.

In a traditional Orthodox prayerbook, as part of the series of morning blessings recited each day, men are instructed to thank God for not making them women, and women are instructed to thank God for making us according to His will. In most liberal siddurim, we find instead a single blessing -- intended to be recited by people of all genders -- which thanks God for making us in the divine image. But I love Rabbi Goldstein's idea of sanctifying menstruation by actively thanking God for making me a woman, using this twist on these very traditional words.

I make the asher yatzar blessing when I go to the bathroom. If I can aspire to sanctify even that act, surely I should aspire to sanctify my body's potential to nurture new life -- and my body's ability to let that potential go.


If you're interested in this subject, don't miss Kohenet director Taya Holly Shere's writing on sacralizing menstruation, which is excerpted in Jay Michaelson's book God In Your Body.