A Feminist On Mikvah

A Feminist On Mikvah
Question: Let's tackle the question of sexism first; do you sincerely feel that there is no sexism in Jewish life?

Slonim: It is never wise to apply terms that have a set meaning and connotation in one society to another system of belief and thought that is radically different. Such is the case with the word sexism. Seen through the lens of Western societal values where the inalienable rights of an individual are sacred, and equal access and opportunity are the means towards that goal, Judaism may well appear to be sexist. In comparison to society at large, where the struggle for power and control -- often between men and women -- looms large, Judaism may seem out of step. But that kind of view ignores the crucial differences between life in general and Jewish life. Jewish life is not about rights, or power, or access. It is, above and beyond all else, covenantal. It is about actualizing the covenant between G-d and each individual and G-d and this world.

The Torah teaches that the ultimate purpose of our lives -- male and female -- is to fill the universe with G-dliness and spirituality. This we do by infusing our every action with sanctity, by using every opportunity to free the G-dly spark inherent in each facet of creation. There is a name for this exercise -- mitzvot. This is the definition of Jewish life. Unquestionably, women have equal obligations and privilege in bringing G-d's plan for this universe to fruition. Just as clearly they have their own strengths, modes of expression, and areas of concentration.

In theory, an egalitarian society sounds like the ideal antidote to sexism. In real life, however, it is neither tenable, nor remotely satisfying. A body needs each of its different organs. Families are comprised of distinct units. A partnership needs diverse strengths; a viable institution depends on people serving in various capacities. The world needs men and women; blurring that line does no one a favor.

There is sexism in day-to-day living all around us, and Jewish communal life is certainly not untainted. There are sexist individuals, boards, institutions, etc., and we must continue to agitate and exercise until that is no more. But the Torah system of life is not sexist. It offers, nay demands, the same of both men and women -- the fulfillment of the Divine will.

I consider myself a feminist. The basic task of feminism is to expose the lie that women are any less important than men and to fight it on every level. Many women are secretly afraid that in fact that may be the truth. A woman who is certain that her position and function was ordained by G-d, and that it is every bit as important spiritually, is not plagued by these doubts. She recognizes her femininity as a strength, is certain of her worth, and uses her powers to the maximum.

Jewish feminine spirituality is a complex and delicate study. My book, Total Immersion, endeavors to highlight an area of Jewish ritual that has always belonged to women. And it does so in a fashion, that for the first time, offers a deep, intimate probe through the prism of their own experience. Mikvah offers a virtually unparalleled venue for spirituality and self-growth and has spawned many a Jewish heroine. The volume is filled with a montage of incredibly powerful images: the physically challenged woman who immerses despite all odds, the women in Santa Fe who doggedly build a mikvah with their bare hands, the woman in totalitarian Russia who lowered herself into a freezing well, the women in Sweden who interrupt their cruise and brave jagged-edged boulders to immerse in an ocean. Are these women equal? The better question is: Who is equal to them?

Question: We know that words often fail us when it comes to esoteric topics, but can you attempt to explain, especially to the skeptic, what "spiritual impurity" is? And, is it something that must be accepted on faith, or is there any rational basis for its belief?

Slonim: The laws of impurity, niddah and mikvah are decidedly supra-rational notions. We speak here of statutes that must be observed on faith. In this regard we are all skeptics. But there are a few things to be said on the subject.

It is crucial to dispel the myth that purity is the religious term for clean, and impurity, the concomitant term for dirty. Impurity is neither tangible nor discernible; it is a spiritual condition. When we open the text, we see that the Torah clearly makes spiritual purity a requisite to entrance into the realm of the holy. In biblical times, and through the Second Temple period, the interplay of purity and impurity took center stage in Jewish life. Entrance to holy space -- first the tabernacle and later the Holy Temples -- was contingent on spiritual purity. Today, it is in sacred union alone that this law is enforced. For now-until the Holy Temple is rebuilt -- it is in our bedrooms that we build the most hallowed of all hallowed shrines. Immersion in the mikvah is the gateway to the holy ground of conjugality.

Judaism teaches that the source of all taharah, or purity, is life itself. Conversely, death is the harbinger of tumah, or impurity. All types of ritual impurity, and the Torah describes many, are rooted in the absence of life or some measure -- even a whisper -- of death.

When stripped to its essence, a woman's menses signals the death of potential life. Each month, a woman's body prepares for the possibility of conception. The uterine lining is built up in anticipation of a fertilized ovum. Menstruation is the shedding of that lining, the end of that possibility. The presence of potential life within fills a woman's body with holiness and purity. In its absence, impurity sets in, conferring upon the woman a state of impurity referred to as niddut. Impurity is neither evil nor dangerous. It is simply the absence of purity, much as the darkness is the absence of light. Only immersion in the mikvah has the power to change that.

Seen in this light, the laws of niddah and mikvah are neither sexist nor misogynist, they are simply G-d's created cycles of being.

Question: The argument is often made that a couple's observance of the laws of family purity enhances their sex lives and that it makes "every month a honeymoon." Do you think this is true? Do you think this is the purpose of the laws?

Slonim: In answering your question I want to be careful of, on the one hand, over-romanticizing the observance and, on the other, not minimizing its unique and very real effect on a couple's sex life and entire relationship. The observance of family purity is not a panacea or magical potion; building a healthy marriage is hard work and a multifaceted endeavor.

But I think it is true to say that mikvah observance brings to marriage a definite element of excitement, renewal, and respect that might otherwise not be there. It is no secret that society at large struggles with sex-related issues on a continuous basis. For a large percentage of couples the problem is simply boredom. Mikvah does much to alleviate this seemingly benign, but rather insidious, condition. It brings the dynamics of anticipation -- almost titillation -- and a heightened sexual consciousness more often associated with courtship than with marriage into every month, for years. It brings couples an enhanced appreciation of each other as they pine for a union so near and yet not within their reach. It does much in the way of correlating their moments of desire for intimacy and eases the power struggle that haunts so many relationships. In short, a man and woman who love each other and don't have an open-ended opportunity to be intimate will be less likely to take the time they have together for granted and are much more inclined to use every opportunity for lovemaking and sharing maximally.

Perhaps, the most important gift is a result of the mandated physical separation. The mikvah regimen forces couples to find ways of expressing love, care, and concern all without touching skins. For two weeks they must finely hone that almost lost form of art: communication. With physical intimacy not an option, they are catapulted into a deep friendship, which in turn can only help fuel the passion they unleash when they come back to each other's sexual embrace.

As to the purpose of these laws, the Talmud does link enhanced marital harmony and bliss to these laws and it is a phenomenon that is confirmed in the laboratory of life. Still, this may not be true for every couple. Therefore, my final words on the subject are that we can never fathom the ultimate purpose of, or reason for, G-d's command.

Question: Do you ever think that rituals such as mikvah are nice human inventions rather than Divine commands? Accepting the Torah as written by G-d is a big leap for many.

Slonim: Clearly, accepting the Divine source of Torah is a big leap and each one of us must make that leap on our own. The fact remains, however, that it is precisely and only that belief that gives mikvah and the other rituals value and relevance. While some of us may greatly appreciate the rituals and find strata of meaning, even benefit and comfort in observance, in the final analysis it is commitment to G-d's word that assures adherence. Without this underlying, absolute premise, observance would most likely take on a sporadic, rather than binding, character; it would vary based on time, circumstance, and mood.

To take mikvah as an example: Immersion in a pool of water to effect spiritual purity, not physical hygiene, is by definition an irrational, inexplicable action, hardly a nice human invention. For every woman who speaks of immersion in glowing terms, describing a sense of renewal and spirituality, there is one who either fears or loathes water, finds the preparation taxing, and/or views the whole thing as an inconvenience. The roughly two weeks of abstinence inherent in the mikvah discipline, while affording couples distinct benefits, runs contrary to human instinct and desire. It can hardly be termed "nice," nor does it feel good to be physically removed from your beloved. Yet the Jew who is committed follows the laws under every and all circumstances.

Total Immersion contains the largest collection to date of first- hand accounts, stories, and tales on the subject of mikvah. I believe that the many accounts of self-sacrifice on the part of women who observed mikvah -- in the former Soviet Union, in the ghetto, and even in modern-day America -- despite incredible difficulty are the most powerful section of my volume. These stories of faith, and its steadfast expression, have touched me deeply and I know they will affect readers in like fashion.

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