Unless you’re living under a rock – or, in today’s zeitgeist, you don’t have wifi – you’ve probably heard of this new app on the market, Tahor, that allows women to text a picture of their bedikah cloths to a rabbi to assess if the stain on the cloth renders her ritually impure.
This is completely unheard of – and in one week alone, this technology has stirred up lots and lots of controversy. Yes, we have apps for almost everything imaginable, but this activity – assessing if a stain is indeed menstrual blood – has been reserved for the skilled, learned, rabbinic human eye for centuries now. How can an app possibly do this job? And do it right, no less?
In case you’re scratching your head (or totally weirded out), here’s a crash course on something that, as an observant woman, is part of my monthly reality: according to Jewish law, husband and wife may not be physically intimate during a woman’s period and 7 days thereafter, which are called the ‘clean days.’ During those seven days, we do an internal exam with a square, soft white cloth to assess that we are no longer bleeding. If there is any staining on our underwear or the cloth, called a bedikah, we bring it to a rabbi, proficient in these laws, to be checked.
These laws are Big Laws. Physical intimacy during menstrual bleeding and the seven clean days thereafter is a serious offense. So yes, we check ourselves with little white cloths. And gaze at them in sunlight. And take them to be checked by a Rabbi, if we’re unsure.
Painfully awkward? Totally perfunctory? Possibly special? You be the judge.
My first year of marriage was fraught with us trying to conceive, to no avail. Every month, I’d wait eagerly for my period to be over so I could count down the seven days to my most fertile time of the cycle: the night I would immerse in the mikvah. This cycle of period + seven is built around the assumption that you’re clear to immerse, and resume sexual intimacy, right around the time you ovulate. But if your cycle extends too long, by the time you’re done counting the seven days, you’ve missed your ovulation – and the optimal time to get pregnant. Hello Red Raspberry Leaf tea. And stress.
Month after month, I would check those cloths, waiting to start my seven clean days. And unless it came out squeaky clean, I’d assume I had to wait another day.
And with that, another month would pass by. Not pregnant.
Sometimes I would send in the cloths, seal them in an envelope with my phone number scrawled on it and wait for the phone call. “Yes, it’s good.” “No, you need to do another hefsek (kind of examination).” Sometimes there were more questions. Most times, he got straight to the point.
There were months I couldn’t be bothered and would just assume they weren’t ‘clean.’ Many times I’d feel frustrated, but somehow, kept the faith. After all, the taste of Chinese herbs starts to grow on you.
Finally, one month, I felt compelled to bring in that potentially-damning cloth to the Rabbi myself. To the naked eye, there did not seem to exist any possibility that that bedikah cloth could be rendered clean – white, it was not – but I took a chance. And I wanted to speak to someone. No more envelopes.
I crept up the stairs and walked into that office, filled with so many books…every inch paper and leather. The rav took the envelope from me and gently opened it up before me. I was embarrassed, uneasy. The rav was respectful, deliberate. He checked the cloth, turned it around, brought it to the window, looked at it again– and rendered it kosher.
“Are you sure? Really?” The words just tumbled out. “It’s so…dark.”
And this rav explained that kosher does not always mean stark white. That brown and yellow and colors in between can still be rendered pure. That likely, I was judging this little cloths too harshly. That likely, all those months, I could have possibly gone to the mikvah sooner. That really, sometimes, it’s worth the trip to the rav.
I will never forget that moment. There was so much wisdom in his words. I felt his care.
But more: while presenting a shaylah, a question, to a rav, I felt like I was part of an interlocking chain of Jews leading all the way back to the foot of Sinai, who faithfully seek the guidance of these teachers – guardians of our sacred law and practice. I was not alone in that office, awkwardly asking if a little white cloth was stained with my period blood. I was not just looking for a permission slip leading back to my husband’s bed. I was not just going through the motions, acting without conviction. I was strong. I was expressing deep devotion and commitment. I was living the legacy of a larger whole.
I still get teary eyed, remembering that pride.
Since that moment, I bring any questions I might have to the rav. And almost every time, I feel that awesome, humbling privilege.
But many women do not feel the same way. For many women, this process remains excruciatingly embarrassing and anxiety provoking. For many women, there is no local rav available. For many women, the diligent practice of these laws begins to fade away against the discomfort – and impracticality – of having their bedikah cloths checked in person by a rav.
And so, technology has now entered the Orthodox Jew’s bedroom. We now have an app to send a picture to a rabbi to decide if a cloth is ‘clean’ or needs, in fact, to be checked in person by a rav. In some ways, this app keeps these laws relevant to so many women. In some ways, technology has usurped power from our rabbis.
I am not here to assess if this app is halachically kosher or philosophically appropriate. Far from me to get close to that conversation, even with a ten foot pole. There are many others who are far more knowledgeable who can speak to these questions.
But I do believe there is something to learn from this development and its possible impact on our communal landscape. And it starts with some tough questions.
How do we compare the needs of the community against the needs of an individual? If this app can help even a few women stay halachically engaged while saving face, does that not make its creation and implementation worth any ripples it might cause along the way? Why? Why not?
Why is menstrual blood seen as something gross, icky, overly personal and off-putting? Have we absorbed the superstitions of other cultures? (As someone of Middle Eastern descent, I vote yes.) Do we confuse ‘impure’ with dirty? Are we ashamed, even a little bit, by our bodies and our cycles, how we ebb through times of life-giving and life-stopping and the havoc that wreaks on our bodies?
Why don’t we go to our rabbanim more often when we are faced with questions and dilemmas? Do we not have enough practice in the art of asking a question? And if we don’t ask, how will we inspire our children to ask, to stand proudly in this long, winding chain to Sinai – not to feel its heavy weight, shackled to their feet?
Are we, as women, uncomfortable going to male rabbis? Do we mistrust them to show authentic sensitivity to personal, feminine issues? Why are we not making it more possible for women to fill these roles?
Do we not engender respect for our rabbis and teachers? Do they not engender in us a respect for them?
None of the above? All of the above?
Here’s another piece of our zeitgeist: we, more than ever, are forced to fumble with the balance between adhering to tradition and embracing innovation. In our synagogues, community centers, schools, and homes we struggle in the grey; in how we dress, eat, pray and love, we are entrenched in tension, desperately trying to hold onto our laws and practice while welcoming modernity, cultural relevance and flexibility.
So who will win? How far will the pendulum swing? And how dizzy will we get, trying to hold on?
Will we let technology in the bedroom – or have the rabbi act as bouncer, stopping it in its tracks?