Dealing with Harhakot is the Focus of This Month’s “Joy of Text” Episode
In this month’s episode of The Joy of Text, “Navigating Niddah“, the primary discussion is on the topic of how couples navigate the difficulties of הרחקות – distancing during the wife’s menstrual impurity. As opposed to other episodes in which the hosts, Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus and Rabbi Dov Linzer have a fair balance of contributions or where Dr. Marcus has more to contribute to the conversation, Rabbi Linzer had a lot to share about these distancing practices:
The הרחקות are a whole collection of types of behaviors that the rabbis said that should not be occurring between husband and wife for one of two reasons: either because of a concern that it might lead to them having sex or because of a concern that, if sex was forbidden, then certain acts of physical intimacy would be in the same sort of category, you know, at the edges of that category of sex, and, therefore, also something that should not be done during this time. And these are a whole different range of practices, some are based on the Talmud, some developed after the Talmud, some are מנהג (customs), some are more strict halakhah, it’s a wide range of practices.
As to what these distancings are, specifically, Rabbi Linzer said, “It’s interesting to know that actual הרחקות in the Gemara are maybe fewer than you can count on one hand. The actual הרחקות in the Gemara” start with not sharing a bed, while “the other three are really one group: one is the wife can’t make the bed, which is seen as a particularly intimate act for the husband, she can’t pour his cup of wine, which is also seen as very intimate, like very personal, and she can’t wash his hands and face and feet. Those are the things mentioned in the Gemara. The Gemara does not even mention casual touch, although almost all of the Rishonim assume that that’s included.” As for the other practices, “everything else is based on what the Rishonim either interpreted what the Gemara was saying or based on practices that developed after the Gemara.” As to some of these, Rabbi Linzer mentioned some practices that developed that are quite far from the first four:
Some of the more extreme examples: so, husband and wife are not supposed to touch, even casual touch, not sexual touch, and then that gets another layer added on that: they’re not supposed to pass objects to one another, because they might come to touch. And then, another layer gets added on that and they’re not even supposed to throw an object to one another, because that might come to actual leading to passing, leading to touching. And you can see that it really gets to like maintaining a lot of distance between them, far beyond the issue of actual sex.
Rabbi Linzer recognized that there are many challenges that can arise due to these distancings, which may also be experienced differently by men and women:
My sense is…for a lot of couples, it’s not the not having intercourse twelve days a month that’s so challenging, it’s the not being able to be able to be physically intimate, whether it means physically sexual touch or whether it just means any form of touch that can be a real challenge. And it can be hard, I think, sometimes for men in one way and for women in another. For men – and I am going to generalize here – by and large, have a harder time talking about their emotions and being affectionate – I’m not even talking about sexual – but being, you know, affectionate through words. And it’s very hard, sometimes, I think, for a lot of men to feel that they’re connecting to their wives – again, not sexually, just any form of connecting – if they can’t put a hand or touch , like even a gentle touch, so that can, I think, sometimes, be a real challenge for men. And I think a real challenge for women that because so much of this has to do with her state of being a נידה…, all these things combined, make the woman sometimes – I mean and sometimes not, but I’ve heard a lot of women feel like taboo: “I have the cooties,”, “I am something that there’s a big problem with me that my husband has to keep his distance in such an extreme way” – so I think that there’s a lot of emotional/relational challenges that come as a result that have nothing to do with the issue of intercourse, of not having sex.
Rabbi Linzer also began to speak about how the couples can navigate these and suggested speaking to a rabbi to help if they become an issue, while Dr. Marcus recommended to speak to each other about them – and not just during the marriage, but even before.
The guest speaker for the episode was Dr. Deborah Raice Fox, who professionally works as an endocrinologist, and has taught engaged couples for 18 years in Rockland County. She initially started out teaching just brides (a kallah), but then came to include also their fiances: “I pretty quickly realized that a kallah teacher does not just teach halakhot and doesn’t just teach the laws, but really needs to help a couple navigate these laws and help them through their lives. So, I pretty much went from being a kallah teacher to being a hatan and kallah teacher.” An interesting development occurred: “At the beginning, I thought that the sexuality part would be only with the women, and, actually, after some of the couples said, ‘Why should we separate for that? We both want to be here together.'” … “So I had to evolve with that, too.”
She spoke broadly about her hatan and kallah teaching and offered the following suggestion: “I think it’s important for a hattan and kallah teacher, who are teaching halakhot, to really help a couple to navigate these halakhot and to help use it in a positive way, rather than in a negative way – it can certainly be a negative for people who are resentful and angry about it. And that’s part of what a hattan and kallah teacher has to feel comfortable doing.” One further important piece of advice she dispensed was to framing the discussion “much more in terms of not just wedding night sex, which a lot of kallah teachers have talked about in the past, like how to put a penis in the vagina on the wedding night, but rather how to have a sexual life together.”
To the question at the end of the episode, in the Q&A segment, “I was told when I got married, ten years ago, that a woman can’t directly ask for sex. The reason I was given is that sex is a mitzvah and it’s not fair to put a man in the position to be able to fulfill or perform a mitzvah – is this true?”, Rabbi Linzer responded by saying that
That’s a really interesting question, because the Talmud actually does say that a woman isn’t supposed to ask for sex, but gives a totally different reason. And there’s actually one Talmud passage that says a woman should ask for sex and will have wonderful children as a result. That gets rejected. But when the Talmud does conclude that a woman should not ask for sex, the reason is really that’s seen as too forward; not enough tzanua, modest, to be blatently asking for sex. It does not give it all this reason.
Moreover, Rabbi Linzer said that “If the whole halakhah is that the husband has an obligation, this mitzvah of onah, to be responsive to his wife’s needs and desires, then he has to know what those needs and desires are. and that’s his mitzvah.” Moreover, he said that, the husband “is obligated to be responsive to your needs and you are just letting him know what those needs are.”
More broadly, Rabbi Linzer stated that
I think, in married life, you work to accommodate your partner’s needs to the degree that it’s feasible and whether that means a particular thing that one person wants to be doing in the bedroom and the other person is maybe not so thrilled with or whether that means “Do you want to have sex tonight?”, so that’s true both in terms of the relationship – you know: sometimes you’re not 100% raring to go, but you try to be responsive to your partner. And if it’s really something that you can’t reasonably do in a way of being present, in a way that would actually make it the type of sex that hopefully both of them are looking for, then, okay, you can’t do it – it’s like any other mitzvah, you know – if you can’t do it, you can’t do it.