A few years ago, I had a conversation with a co-worker of mine about where we stood on religious issues. She described her upbringing as traditional, but not Orthodox, which in practical terms means that she and her family kept only some observances, like the holidays and kosher laws, while in other areas, like modest dress and behavior, they were completely lax.
"I was raised traditional," she said, "but many of my beliefs aren't traditional. Like, I believe that we can connect to G-d ourselves and don't need any intermediaries."
Very surprised at her statement, I said, "What could be more Traditional than that? You can connect to G-d anywhere and any time you want, and in any language." This belief, in fact, is a foundation of Judaism, and part of the Torah Tradition. This very principle sets us apart from other religions. But at the time, I gave her the first example that came to mind, "Rebbe Nachman, a Hasidic leader of the last century, recommended talking to G-d alone every day. It's called hisbodedus."
"Yeah," she mumbled non-committedly, and continued, "and lately I'm becoming more of a feminist. I don't believe that just because I have my period that I'm unclean."
Because she was a graduate student in a prominent Jewish institution among the non-Orthodox movements, I assumed she knew the underlying concepts regarding the laws of menstruation. When she said she did not, I told her that the shedding of an unfertilized egg is the loss of a soul of a person that might have existed. "It's a spiritual thing," I explained, "not a matter of being unclean or disgusting."
She seemed as surprised at this as I was at her lack of knowledge. "But how do you know there's such a thing as a soul?" she asked.
I was flabbergasted. She was so out of touch with her own soul that she could not see how she had contradicted herself. She had just said that every Jew has the power to connect to G-d individually!
"It's obvious," I said. "You can feel it. When you connect to G-d, what do you think is doing it?"
"I don't know," she said. "I'm not sure what I think about these issues."
I hope that conversation made her think about them, because her beliefs were full of inconsistencies and misinformation. However, I do not blame her for this. These issues had never been explained to her properly.
Her concept that menstruation renders a woman "unclean" was possibly the worst of all. Words like "unclean" and "contaminated" are common, albeit wholly inaccurate, translations for the Hebrew word which describes the state resulting from menstruation, tuma. These mistranslations do not reflect the Jewish view on the matter at all. Tragically, these errors have done tremendous damage to the Jewish people because they alienate women from true Yiddishkeit.
The word tuma cannot be translated into English. In the same way the Eskimos are said to have dozens of words for snow, referring to subtle differences outsiders cannot distinguish, Judaism has words for spiritual states for which Western languages have no equivalent. It is possible to explain the concept of tuma in English, but no single word can convey its meaning.
Fundamental in the beliefs of Judaism is the understanding that Hashem created everything in the physical world even though Hashem's Nature is purely spiritual and non-physical. Nonetheless, every physical thing in Creation -- from inanimate rocks to unicellular amoebae to complex human beings -- contains within it a spark of Divinity. The clearest expression of this is in the human soul. Our souls are microcosms of Hashem.
The soul and body do not exist as forces which repel each other; rather, they are enmeshed together. Even the loftiest capacity we humans possess -- the capacity of thought -- is tied to neurochemical processes within the brain. This miraculous combination of Pure Spirituality, or G-dliness, with physical nature is the basis of human life.
Death occurs when the tie between spirituality and physicality severs. The soul returns to its Source, Hashem, and the body remains, much like an empty shell. Without the soul to animate it, the body has lost that which gave it spiritual value. And this loss results in the state called "tuma." Thus, the simplest definition of the word "tuma" is the spiritual status that comes as a result of contact with death. (Some of the soul does remain with the body after death; for more details, read my husband's article Body and Soul.)
The dead body of a human being is the strongest form of "tuma" because it represents the greatest loss of spiritual potential. Similarly, the unfertilized egg that is shed during menstruation is also a form of tuma because it could have housed a soul if it had been fertilized. Never again will the minuscule egg have the opportunity to become a human being and carry the amazingly complex human soul.
The state of tuma, the state resulting from contact with death, is not a negative thing. If a person buries a dead person, he too becomes tamei (adjective form). He is not contaminated; in fact, burying a dead body is such an important mitzvah that it takes precedence over almost all others (Maimonides, Yad HaChazkah, Laws of Mourners, 14:9; Shulchan Aruch, "Escorting the Dead," 361:1). Thus, being tamei is most certainly not a state of spiritual inferiority. It means only that the person involved cannot participate in certain rituals.
A further indication that tamei does not mean unclean or contaminated is in the way we remove ourselves from this state. The tuma that results from menstruation is removable by immersion in a mikvah, a special pool of water. If tuma meant uncleanliness, a shower would be sufficient. A woman is in fact required to bathe and shower before immersing in a mikvah. She must remove every speck of dirt from her body. But this does not remove the tuma. Only immersion in the mikvah can do that.
The underlying reason for mikvah also reflects the fundamental sanctity of life. Water is the primordial substance of the world; it existed before anything else in Creation. We see in the second verse of the Torah: "The earth was empty and desolate, with darkness on the face of the deep, and G-d's spirit fluttering on the face of the waters." The Jerusalem Talmud teaches us that it was from these waters that G-d developed the entire universe (Chagigah 2:1). The scientists' term "primordial soup" is quite apropos. Thus, in the words of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, ". . . water represents the womb of Creation. When a person immerses in the mikvah, he is placing himself in the state of the world yet unborn, subjecting himself totally to G-d's creative power (Waters of Eden , p. 13.)" In this context, it is easy to understand why immersion in a mikvah removes tuma. After the contact with death, we submerge ourselves in the substance from which life emerged.
I hope that this discussion has made it clear that the matter of tuma is a highly spiritual concept, far beyond simple cleanliness. Menstrual blood is NOT taboo in Judaism, nor is it something distasteful. The menstrual Laws, like all the Laws of Judaism, imbue us with a constant consciousness of the miracles which comprise our daily existence. We certainly do not view the menstruation cycle as disgusting, or even as routine and ordinary. Rather, these Laws enable us to recognize the awesome potential of life as it regenerates itself within our very own bodies.