When people say “Berserkeley,” they might think of the students skipping class to protest some offshoot of capitalism, the street artists along Telegraph or that man in a recyclable lizard costume on campus. But what they might not as often think about are the subterranean events of avant-garde activism within the city itself.
From a hillside a block away from UC Berkeley, overlooking the bay, the Pacific School of Religion, or PSR, offers progressive, vibrant and fascinating lectures, conversations and discussions on all topics theology, social justice and community. PSR, a seminary that offers a graduate program as well as training for would-be religious leaders such as priests and rabbis, regularly organizes a variety of talks and events featuring religious leaders and activists.
In the last month, PSR’s Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion has reintroduced its “Jewish Roundtable” series, wherein the institution invites scholars, students, community members and the like to discuss the historical and cultural contexts of the Jewish faith in the school’s Badè Museum of Biblical Archaeology.
A speaker at one such event within the series is Hebrew priestess, professional workshop facilitator, educator, performance artist, consultant and PSR alumna Ariel Vegosen, who imparted her expertise on blood culture in Judaism at the “Jewish Queeries” event “Blood, Sex, and Torah: Queering Our Understanding of Tumah and Taharah (Impurity and Purity).”
Vegosen framed conversation at this event with the modern interpretation of the Hebrew words “taharah” and “tumah.” These words, Vegosen explained, are commonly thought to translate to “pure” and “impure.” They are more often used to distinguish people who do and do not menstruate; nonmenstruators being pure and menstruators being impure.
The Daily Californian: Can we talk about blood culture and demystify some of these topics for people who have never heard of them before?
Ariel Vegosen: We have an overall problem in our culture of shame around bodies and shame around bleeding bodies. Unfortunately, this has been instilled in us from a system of patriarchal control. It’s important that we liberate our bodies and recognize that bleeding is beautiful. And recognize that bleeding is not a gendered experience and that there are multiple genders that bleed. That there’s not a binary system, so you have women and trans men and gender nonbinary people and genderqueer people and gender-fluid people that all will experience bleeding.
And there needs to be a way for us as a society, for us all to shift our mind frame around what our bodies do. Because something that your body is doing naturally every month is beautiful. It’s not gross, it’s not disgusting, it’s not something to be afraid of — it’s something to uplift and honor.
I am curious what it would look like if people shifted their narratives around this and if people questioned why we have a narrative that is so harmful to bodies that bleed. What is that about? How does that connect to sexism, misogyny; how does that connect to transphobia? And what are we willing to do to switch those narratives?
DC: Is the impurity/purity binary a common theme brought up in other cultures? What does the Jewish interpretation have to say about these terms?
AV: So when you think about Judaism and bleeding, a lot of people are carrying a narrative that comes from the words “taharah” and “tumah.” These two words are very specifically Hebrew words, which means that part of the problem that has occurred is that people are translating (them) to mean “impure” and “pure,” but that’s not exactly an accurate translation. Other categories besides bodies that are bleeding on a monthly cycle fit into that.
So for tumah, another category that fits into that (idea of impurity) is someone that is close to a dead body, (or) a person who has ejaculated in their sleep. So there’s multiple things that fall into that category. And the word “impure” is not exactly an accurate translation, so another way that you could be creating that translation … is meaning “liminal.” So instead of saying you’re in an impure space, you’re saying you’re in a liminal space, which to me makes a lot of sense, right, because “liminal” is not a negative word. It’s really hard to hear the word “impure” and not have a social context that tells you that impure is dirty, shameful, other, should be cast out.
DC: Interesting. So is that an example of reframing the narrative?
AV: I think that it’s also a way to be reclaiming. What I’m trying to get people to realize is that our language-ing is important; how you frame something will change people’s mindsets and their understanding of their bodies, so to tell me that my body is impure — what does that make me think of myself? What is that doing to how I interact with the rest of the world? Versus if you tell me that this experience is a natural part of life, that this is beautiful, that this is powerful, that this is a gift, that this is to be honored — how am I going to view myself? How am I going to perceive myself? How does that increase my joy? So why is someone creating this narrative?
It’s also significant to pay attention to which bodies, which people created the laws around bleeding. Are those people bodies that bleed? No, they’re not. In terms of gender, those people are generally men, and they are not people who bleed. So I’m not sure why it makes sense to have a population of people who experience this to create a narrative about this. I think that needs to change and needs to be challenged.
DC: When you say the word “tumah” also applies to death, or ejaculation in your sleep — is it necessarily something that is corporeal, as in “relating to the body”? Or has it specifically been used against bodies that bleed?
AV: Well, those words are attached to specific things. They’re not saying that you are impure, period — they’re saying you’re in a state of tumah when you are bleeding, when you are near a dead body, when you ejaculate in your sleep. So now they attach laws to that, so when you’re in a state of tumah, you would not be able to attend services and do sacrifices in the temple. In a heterosexual marriage, you would not be able to be sexually engaged nor touching at all with your partner. And, of course, there are laws to that. There’s different laws in Judaism about what happens when you’re on your period and in a marriage.
And what I think here is that the person that is bleeding should decide what is best for their body. … And so if the person who is bleeding during this time decides that they don’t want to be sexually active, then that is fine. And if the person who is bleeding decides that sex would feel amazing for their body, then great — do it! There’s nothing wrong with having sex while you’re on your period. It’s actually really powerful and great — orgasms can actually make your body cramp less and feel better. So I think it’s up to anybody who bleeds to make that decision for themselves, but not because anyone told you that it’s gross, or bad or harmful because that narrative is actually just not true.
DC: In your work, have you found this issue to have been prevalent throughout history? How many forms has this body oppression taken on?
AV: I’m a Hebrew priestess, I’m an expert about the Jewish tradition — that’s what I feel comfortable talking to. But I would be very curious if you were to talk to a Muslim scholar or a Hindu scholar or a Christian scholar or any scholar of any other faith. I think our body shame has a lot to do with Christian, U.S.-dominant, normative culture. And I don’t think Judaism is alone in this because we are such a minority-space group. So there must be faiths that are larger than ours that are authorizing this thinking.
In the context of Judaism, it’s not all stuck in this narrative that’s been hurtful, there’s also a really positive narrative that is existing, and I would say that this has always existed. If you look at … the work of Rabbi Jill Hammer and Dr. (Shmuel) Asher, you’ll see there’s a lot of positive bleeding culture that’s happening now
DC: Could you talk about some of the reclamation techniques that you’re talking about, like the bedikah cloth art, or the all-gender red tents or the free bleeding — when did those practices develop, and what do they look like now?
AV: Free bleeding has existed since the beginning of human time, so it’s basically just the practice of bleeding out without using a tampon, diva cup — you just (bleed) wherever you are. That is a tradition that has existed since the beginning of time. I think it’s way more modern to (use) pads or tampons. I will say there’s benefits to everything. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with bleeding out. Bleeding out also involves potentially carrying a towel with you or a way to bleed out.
But there’s also something amazing about it, to be like, ‘This is what my blood looks like. I’m not afraid of it; this is what my body’s doing.’ It would be great if we could just normalize this. So I would love to be in a time where that becomes normal and when people can choose what’s best for them when they’re bleeding. I want a culture where no one is ever embarrassed about bleeding because it’s not an embarrassing experience — it’s part of what your body does naturally.
Regarding the other projects, I know red tent culture has existed in Judaism as well as a lot of other indigenous cultures. There’s always been a red tent culture that’s existed in Judaism and when Jewish people lived closely together in villages and on the land. Often these people would begin bleeding on the same cycle — the cycle of the moon. They would bleed on the new moon and ovulate on the full moon, and obviously, this is not true for anyone all of the time because that’s just not how life works. And that meant that if people were bleeding along a cycle, they would have a red tent space to bleed together. Now, a lot of what that looks like, we just don’t know. There’s narratives that I’ve heard that make this sound like a really wonderful experience for people to gather and dream together. If that’s what the red tent is about, then that’s awesome. As soon as someone else comes in and says, ‘Oh, there’s something “other” about these people in the red tent,’ then the narrative is not really working. So there’s nothing inherently problematic about having a space for people to bleed.
It’s very hard to bring back the red tent culture when you aren’t sure what it looked like back then. The Parliament of World Religions had a red tent at their event, so you have to think about how different that is. Those red tents are just a very different experience than what our ancestors were doing because our ancestors were doing something that existed in a cycle and in the local village that they lived in. We don’t have that, so we’re experimenting with one week that we have together living in the village context of this festival. But what is your red tent — is it about bleeding, is it a space to gather? Not everybody’s going to be bleeding, so who gets access to it? These are all really difficult questions. So how do you make sure when you’re bringing back red tent culture that you’re not bringing back someone else’s red tent culture? But there’s also always been a sharing of culture, so it’s all very complicated. However, at the same time, I think we should bring it back because it’s about preservation.
As in many religious practices, certain experiences, behaviors and qualities are deemed pure, while others are cast as sinful. While blood culture may not be prevalent in basic history education, it does encapsulate many of the same social issues that we still face today, such as abortion rights, transgender rights, gay marriage rights and virtually any law deciding what an individual can do with their body.
Rather than blindly accept these doctrines that many religions and politics ask us to accept, Vegosen instead encourages her audience to re-examine any negative messages being prescribed and reclaim their personal divinity.