Mark Guterman’s research has raised a few eyebrows.
The Teaneck resident, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University, has launched a study to examine observance of niddah, the laws of family purity, hoping to convince Jews of all denominations to focus attention on them.
Mark Guterman is taking a close look at niddah practice.
The survey, accessible through a Website he’s set up, www.jewishsurveys.org, contains some 50 questions designed to gather both qualitative and quantitative data about the practices of married couples. Guterman is collaborating with Orit Avishai, a graduate student in psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, the study’s sponsor.
Guterman, ”, said that despite having attended a yeshiva high school, he knew little about the specificity of the laws, also known as taharat hamishpacha, which mandate that couples observe a period of sexual abstinence during and for seven days following the wife’s menstruation, and other prohibitions on physical contact. His initial research, conducted through his community, Young Israel of Staten Island, and completed in the summer of ‘005, revealed that many who claim to adhere to the niddah laws were inadvertently violating a number of prohibitions, particularly those pertaining to the so-called "clean" days after menstruation. Instead, they indicated in their responses that they were sharing couch cushions, kissing, passing utensils, and engaging in other behaviors that are not in strict accordance with Jewish law.
Those results, based on only 53 survey participants and published in the peer-reviewed psychology journal, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 9′-100), Guterman believes, raised awareness among modern Orthodox communities, leading to refresher courses for young couples already married or engaged. The response led Guterman to conclude that this area of halacha was "sorely under-researched."
In his current project, therefore, Guterman has broadened the scope. Through word-of-mouth, direct mail, postings on online message boards, and the creation of his Website, Guterman has invited people of all Jewish backgrounds to take his survey. While he has yet to approach rabbis to ask their help in distributing the survey, he wouldn’t rule that out if he doesn’t get enough responses on the Website.
Early indications are, however, that he will not need outside assistance. In the first month the survey has been posted, he received more than 800 hits, representing the denominational spectrum. While Guterman anticipates the major findings will concern the ultra-Orthodox and modern Orthodox communities, he believes he will be able to share insights of value to the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements, as well.
Today, an important part of his support team is his wife, Violette. "She’s very active in keeping me grounded when I have the occasional nasty comment, like, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this; it’s nobody’s business,’" said Guterman. "She helped me decide that this work is worth doing."