Attempts to present Jewish religious practices as cruel, harmful or downright
evil, alas, are nothing new. Jewish ritual slaughter, circumcision and Shabbat
have all, at one time or another, been publicly assailed. The opponents are
usually non-Jews, sometimes individuals, sometimes governments. And sometimes,
sadly, they are Jews.
Such is the unfortunate case with regard to a new
Israeli film scheduled to be screened at several Jewish film festivals here in
the United States in coming months. The movie, which purports to be a
documentary but, from descriptions of its content and interviews with its
director, seems more an unabashed hatchet-job on a millennia-old mainstay of
Jewish life, is called, with no shortfall of cynicism, "Purity."
Its topic is Taharat Hamishpacha, or "Family Purity" - the laws that
govern physical relations between Jewish husbands and wives. Ironically,
elements of those laws have been embraced in recent years by many women who are
otherwise less than fully observant of Jewish religious law, including a number
of self-described feminists. They claim that the monthly suspension of physical
contact between husbands and wives helps their husbands regard them as partners
in more than just a physical sense. What is more, they say, immersion in a
mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath - an essential element of Taharat
Hamishpacha - touches something deep in their souls, providing a tangible
expression of the renewal they viscerally feel each month. The new film,
however, takes a rather more jaundiced perspective.
Anat Zuria, the movie's
director, chose three women from over one hundred she interviewed. Though
mikvaot are regularly cleaned and disinfected, one of the subjects
voices disgust for immersing in a pool "where a million women have been there
before you" and contempt for the mikvah attendant whom she chooses to
see not as the personal assistant she is, but rather as "the gatekeeper of my
return to intimacy with my husband." The subject, who also characterizes the
consummation of a relationship between a bride and groom who have remained
abstinent until their wedding night as being "almost like a rape" and vows not
to allow her daughter to suffer that fate, is clearly disturbed by considerably
more than Taharat Hamishpacha.
Ms. Zuria, raised in a secular family but married to an Orthodox man, admits
that she herself didn't like the marriage laws from the start. She found the
separation period trying (which is understandable; most of life's most valuable
things come only with effort), and decided that the laws were but "an ancient
myth" that contemporary Jews don't need to be "dragging along" into the present.
So much for the objective documentary-maker. She seems to share much with Amos
Gitai, another Israeli filmmaker, whose own dark vision of Orthodox Jewish life,
"Kadosh," he admitted, was also motivated by impure intentions; it was
his way, he said, of "voting against" religious Jews.
To the vast majority of observant Jews, however, the laws of Taharat
Hamishpacha are, if challenging, above all sublime and ennobling; they
consider their relationships with their spouses to be stronger, holier and more
enriched as a result of their observance.
That is hardly surprising. If sexuality is an essentially animalistic
expression, a biological imperative, it is a grievously limited aspect of human
existence. If, however, as Judaism teaches, it is something deep and mystical,
powerful and perilous but holding immense potential for holiness, it can exalt
and empower a marriage. Taharat Hamishpacha underlies and sustains that
understanding. (Among good sources for beginning to explore the topic is the
late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's "Waters of Eden," available at artscroll.com.)
Efforts like "Purity" - or like "Kahal," a newly vocal and increasingly
successful anti-circumcision campaign in Israel - deeply pain observant Jews. It
is not that we feel threatened by them; they are vapid and laughable to anyone
who understands and lives Jewish tradition. But that does not mean they are not
Their danger lies in their potential to encourage Jews who may not yet have
experienced the power and beauty of Jewish observance to simply dismiss those
precious things out of hand. That would be tragic not only for the Jewish people
as a whole but most of all for those Jews themselves, who would thereby be
denying themselves the beauty, meaning, spiritual growth - and, yes, purity -
that lie within every Jew's reach.