I have a treat for y’all today. One of my favorite bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, has graciously agreed to an interview about Leviticus 15. She is finishing up her “Year of Biblical Womanhood” project where she has taken every single command to women in the Bible and applied it as literally as possible.
Here is the interview:
When you were first reading through this in preparation for your project, what were some of your gut reactions/emotions?
I knew before the project began that applying the Levitical Purity Codes in a modern context would be especially challenging for a woman, so I decided to dedicate just one month—the month of April—to observing them.
My first thoughts upon reading through Leviticus 15 in preparation for the project went something like this: “Great. Everyone in Dayton is going to know when ‘the way of the woman’ is upon me. This is going to be super-embarrassing.” But by the time April rolled around, I was halfway through my year of biblical womanhood and I’d grown pretty accustomed to stares.
I’d been covering my head whenever I prayed (1 Corinthians 11:5). I’d been growing out my hair, and it was practically eating my head (1 Corinthians 11:15). I referred to my husband as “master” for a week (1 Peter 3:5-6). I stood in front of the “Welcome to Dayton” sign on Highway 27 holding a poster board that said “Dan is Awesome” (Proverbs 31:23). I’d been wearing my homemade purple dress (Proverbs 31:22) with no jewelry and no makeup (1 Timothy 2:8-15). So pitching a tent in front yard, avoiding any physical contact with men for twelve days, and carrying around Rhea County Golden Eagles Marching Band stadium seat wherever I went (to avoid sitting directly on chairs and rendering them “unclean”) was at this point just part of the routine
You attempted to apply this passage as literally as possible. I hear it even included not touching your husband for nearly two weeks. What was the most difficult thing about it? Did anything surprise you about it?
For twelve days, I was not allowed to have any physical contact whatsoever with my husband or with any men—no hugs, no handshakes, no pats on the back….(and obviously, no sex.) It also meant that anything I sat on during this time would be considered “unclean.” For the first two nights, I camped out in the front yard in a tent, as a way of honoring the tradition of menstruation tents popularized in the bestselling novel The Red Tent (though it’s important to note there are no biblical instructions regarding menstruation tents and little evidence that they existed at this time in Israel’s history.) I spent the next ten days sleeping in the guest room.
This was hard. I never realized how important physical contact is to a relationship. It’s one thing to go twelve days without sex; quite another to go twelve days without so much as a hug or reassuring grasp of the hand. I was surprised by how isolated I felt from my husband. Neither of us enjoyed this part of the project…(though, as I’d been told by Jewish friends and resources, the “reunion” after twelve days was pretty sweet!)
I often have to remind myself that these laws were practiced in community. What do you think would have changed if you practiced it with other women?
Throughout the project I’ve been consulting with a wonderful Orthodox Jew from Israel named Ahava. She has really helped me understand how modern Jewish women interpret and apply these passages to their lives. Ahava said it is easier to practice the purity laws in a Jewish community where unmarried men and women generally avoid touching one another anyway. (She noted that this is why, in Fiddler on the Roof, we see men and women holding handkerchiefs while dancing together. It’s to avoid holding hands!) So if I had been in Israel, among an Orthodox community, I probably would have avoided the awkwardness of pulling my hand away when men tried to shake it.
Although “The Red Tent” popularized the idea that women enjoyed their “time of separation” together, a lot of scholars/historians think this was unlikely for the women of Israel, who were too vital to home life to take a week off. Still, I had a few friends stop by to check out my tent and hang out for a while, which was fun.
In your adventures in “Biblical Womanhood” this past year, how has your understanding of passages like this one changed?
Jewish scholars are quick to emphasize the fact that the laws of family purity have nothing to do with physical cleanliness or hygiene, that menstruation itself is not considered “dirty” or women counted “unclean.” The reason women are considered ritually impure during this time is because they have experienced the loss of bodily fluids (which, as you’ve noticed is a big deal in Leviticus) as well as the loss of potential life. It’s all about ceremonial impurity, not personal impurity.
Still, this experience has certainly given me a lot more compassion for the woman in the Gospels who continually bled. Mark reports that she had spent all of her money on doctors trying to be healed…and is it any wonder? Bleeding continually would totally isolate a woman from her community, from her husband, and from God! The fact that she reached out to simply touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, and that Jesus turned around and spoke directly to her, speaks volumes about her bravery and about his compassion. That story will never be the same for me.
Thanks, Rachel! Best of luck to you on the project and the new book. I will definitely be reading that one.