Niddah or no Berkeley study looks at Orthodox sexuality

U.C. Berkeley doctoral student Orit Avishai’s area of study is touching.

No, it’s not poignant or moving — it’s touching. You know, physically touching someone else. Or, rather, not touching someone else.

Avishai, an Israeli-born former clerk in Israel’s Supreme Court and sociology doctored student at U.C., is researching niddah, the complex set of purity laws revolving around what physical activities an Orthodox Jewish husband and wife can and cannot undertake during the woman’s menstrual period and the seven days preceding a dip in the mikvah.

“I grew up secular in Israel. And I’m fascinated to understand what niddah means to those who observe it. It’s one of those things that doesn’t have a good reputation within secular circles,” said Avishai, whose California-accented speaking voice more closely resembles that of a woman who grew up in the San Fernando Valley than one who was raised a stone’s throw from the Ayalon Valley.

Secular Israeli women will likely first hear about the purity laws from the Orthodox rabbis one must work with prior to marriage. Not only are couples supposed to abstain from sex, they are not permitted to sleep in the same bed, hold hands or even pass objects to one another.

“Speaking as a secular Israeli, it’s perceived as something that’s very archaic, very patriarchal. I was interested in a different perspective on niddah.”

And, thanks to the Internet, she’s getting one.

Avishai found collaborator Mark Guterman, a New Jersey-based researcher, by reading his works online (“Let me tell you, there are not a lot of researchers working on niddah,” deadpanned Avishai).

The two created a quick online survey on niddah and sexuality that, since January, thousands of Orthodox Jews have filled out.

A sample question from Jewishsurveys.org:

Which behaviors would you participate in before marriage?

• Arm over shoulder

• Undressing in front of partner

• One minute continuous lip kissing (with tongue)

The anonymous survey also queries participants about their age, religious and educational background and religious philosophy.

Avishai is hoping to discover “how people make sense of these laws and [whether there is] a certain gap between the laws in the books and people’s everyday practices. What the rabbis and movers and shakers in the halachah world do with this is up to them.”

And despite the frankness of some of Avishai and Guterman’s questions about sexuality, some congregations have taken this sort of data to heart.

Guterman, who has undertaken several studies of niddah in his hometown of Teaneck, N.J. said some rabbis have begun offering remedial courses based on ignorance of the purity laws his research uncovered. But he believes the study he’s working on with Avishai could be of interest to those outside of the Jewish community as well.

“There’s a lot of research on religion and sexuality in general, mostly dealing with Christianity and Catholicism and premarital sex. This gives you more of a first look at the effect of religiosity on people’s married lives. Hopefully, other religions will begin to look at how religiosity affects the sexuality of married life as well,” he said.

Added Avishai, “For Orthodox Jews, [niddah] organizes life. It’s like dietary laws, like Shabbat. It just happens to organize sex and not what you eat. Judaism is a very practice-oriented religion.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.