Before we discuss Jewish insights into the very private world of intimacy, we
need to free ourselves of some non-Jewish notions about the topic.
The Western World, the culture we live in, has considerable difficulty with
the concept of sexual intimacy. One indication is the culture's obsession with
the subject. On highway billboards, in magazine ads, in best-selling novels, in
almost every form of cultural expression from high art to low language, sexual
innuendoes dominate the landscape.
It reminds me of that incisive quip made by Hamlet's mother, Gertrude: "The
lady doth protest too much methinks". Rather than showing a free and easy
approach to our relationships, this need to constantly mention the topic betrays
a distinct dis-ease with it.
Some of this discomfort may be traced to the Christian roots of Western
culture. Early Christianity identified sexual relations as original
sin. Ironically, though the Western World has worked determinedly in the
past century to free itself from every religously imposed moral and sexual
restraint, it's been left with a souvenir from this early Christian view - the
idea that sexuality is somehow dirty.
In Catholicism until this very day, holiness and sexuality don't mix. The
pious people - the Pope, priests and nuns - are forbidden from engaging in
sexual relations. Though it's permitted for the non-clergy in order to propogate
the species, intimacy is seen at its best as a concession to the flesh with no
inherent holiness. Like any other means, however, its use depends completely on
the expression given to it by the individuals involved. The sexual union is
likea canvas in the control of the artists - husband and wife - and the
spiritual message they produce can be meaningless, or it can be a
Classical Jewish sources describe sexuality as a mighty river. If harnessed,
it can bring irrigation and magnificent energy to countless communities. If
unharnessed and out of control, it brings floods and destruction.
At its highest use - in a Jewish marriage lived according to Jewish law - the
sexual union brings holiness into the world, as it bonds husband and wife
together, spiritually, physically and emotionally.
Closeness between a husband and wife is not just a nice thing, but rather, it
is the recreation on a physical plane of a deeper spiritual reality. According
to Jewish thought, a husband and wife were originally one soul before birth,
split into two halves when the older of the two was conceived. When they reunite
in marriage, their bond is unique becuase it represents the recreation of a
single entity, of one soul.
In describing marriage the Jewish Bible, our Torah, writes: Therefore
shall a man leave his father and his mother and cleave to his wife, and they
shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
Yet this oneness that is the central goal of a Jewish marriage is not easy to
achieve. By marriage age, these two half-souls belong to two quite distinct
individuals who grew up with separate histories, separate experiences, separate
likes and dislikes. Fortunately, marriage itself provides abundant tools to
overcome these superimposed differences and establish on the physical plane the
same oneness that exists on a spiritual plane.
Perhaps the most powerful of the tools that foster oneness in marriage is
sexual intimacy. All the wonderful feelings a couple has in a relationship
culminate in the sexual intimacy between husband and wife.
If G-d gave intimacy this extraordinary power, it makes sense that G-d would
give us guidelines - a medium - to use to its maximum potential. Indeed, that's
the case. We call this medium: Mikvah.
Mikvah - and the accompanying discipline called Family Purity associated with
it - were once as well known and as universally practiced as lighting candles
for the Sabbath. No Jewish family would dream of living without them.
Today we've strayed so far from those times that not only has this
institution been completely forgotten by the vast majority of Jewish families,
but marriage itself has lost much of its status. Recognition of alternate
lifestyles has proceeded so far that today marriage between a Jewish woman and a
Jewish man, once the goal of all Jews, has become just one lifestyle option.
In former times, however, values were different. Marriages were stronger.
Jewish marriages, indeed were the envy of the world. In those times, Jewish
families not only knew about mikvah and family purity, they risked their lives
to be able to practice them.
Mikvah means collection. In physical terms it refers to a pool that is use to
collect natural water, untouched by human hands, such as rainwater, or water
from rivers and underground springs.
Culturally a mikvah is of such significance that the rabbis of the Talmud
ruled that if a community has neither a mikvah nor a synagogue, building a
mikvah takes priority over erecting a synagogue.
Practically, a mikvah is used by both Jewish men and women who immerse in it
before certain holy acts. Though it looks like a bath, it's not. When Jewish law
mandates the use of a mikvah, the user must be perfectly clean and bathed before
immersion. A mikvah is a spiritual tool, it has no association with hygiene.
The Torah mentions mikvah most prominently in connection with the Jewish High
Priest, the Kohen Gadol, who immersed in its waters five times during the Yom
Kippur services when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem. Today, the most
important use of the mikvah is by women, who immerse in it as one step in the
cycle of reunion and separation between husband and wife known as Family
No brief description of the practice of family purity, like the one that
follows, can suffice to ensure its proper practice. The details are many, and
indeed, no brief explanation of the benefits of Family Purity, such as the one
that follows, can adequately explain its beauty. Only practicing it can truly
convey the remarkable nature of it.
Jewish couples who were initially unaware of the mikvah discipline and who
learned about it and incorporated its practice into their lives have told me
that if they once had doubts the Torah was given by G-d, then mikvah and Family
Purity erased them. The insight, or, as they describe it, the genius of this
practice, is so great that no human mind could have invented it.
And yet, to the modern mind, this practice may seem strange at first because
it's so different. Because this pillar of traditional Jewish life is now so
foreign to us, it's often misunderstood, as we try to apply our inadequate and
often shallow 21st century understanding to its extraordinarily deep ways.
In the practice of mikvah and Family Purity, a Jewish couple separates when
the wife gets her monthy period and physical contact doesn't resume until seven
days following the conclusion of her period. On the eve of the night that the
couple is to resume physical relations, the woman immerses in the waters of the
mikvah, where she utters a prayer inviting G-d to sanctify their forthcoming
Essentially, the sexual union is an affirmation of life, as the couple joins
together in the sacred endeavor to draw a new soul from its heavenly source into
this world. Conversely, the time when a couple is allowed no contact is
associated with the period of time when the woman undergoes a loss of life
potental, as the unfertilized ovum is expelled from her body.
When the husband and wife wait for this time to elapse and the wife
employs the mikvah before rejoining her husband in physical intimacy, their
union represents a reaffirmation of the powers of life over death. It is a
rising above our mortality. The cessation of physical relations between husband
and wife has no connection to a feeling of revulsion over the woman's monthly
flow, as is often mistakenly assumed. Such a concept has no home in Jewish
Interestingly enough, though the mysteries of mikvah are bound up in this
interplay between life and death, it's clear that the role mikvah plays is
deeper than our understanding of life and death, because Jewish law calls for
the use of mikvah even among couples for whom procreation is not possible.
Indeed, Jewish law also calls for the active pursuit of a healthy, wholesome
sexual relationship in married couples of all ages, and considers it an
independant value, indeed a spiritual value, whether or not the creation of a
human life is possible.
If we want to understand mikvah in depth, we must return to the references to
it in the Torah. In Leviticus, chaper 16, we read about the Yom Kippur service
as practiced when we had a Temple in Jerusalem.
At the apex of the service, the High Priest would enter the innermost chamber
of the Temple - indeed, the holiest space on earth - the holy of holies, or
Kodesh Hakodashim, where he would ask forgiveness for the nation's
shortcomings throughout the previous year. No one but the High Priest was
allowed to enter the holy of holies and he himself, as the holiest
representative of the holy Jewish nation, was allowed in there only once a year,
for one short interval on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.
It's hard to imagine today the significance of that moment. For seven days
beforehand, the High Priest prepared himself for it. The night before he entered
the holy of holies, a team of great Jewish leaders kept him awake all night,
quizzing him and pushing him to the heights of his moral and spiritual potential
- the future of not just the Jewish nation but the entire world would rest on
his actions in the Holy of Holies - actions that were done completely in
private, witnessed solely by G-d and himself.
After seven days of refining himself, and after the long night vigil, the
High Priest had one final preparation to make before the awesome moment in which
he would enter the Holy of Holies and affect atonement for himself, for his
nation and for the world: he immersed in the mikvah.
The resumption of the act of intimacy of a Jewish woman with her husband is a
similarly awesome moment. After her seven days of preparing herself for that
moment, a woman immerses herself in a mikvah in order to elevate her
relationship with her husband and to elevate the world itself.
How? How can immersing in something as plain as water have such a profound
Water is the most spiritual of all the physical elements. The opening
passages of Genesis (1-2:22) describe the creation of many impressive things
including the earth and mankind. And yet, though water is referred to (The
breath of G-d hovered above the face of the waters Genesis 1:2), there is
no mention of its creation. Our sages learn from this that water pre-existed our
account of creation, and pre-existed the earth itself.
A mikvah, containing waters untouched by human hands because they either fell
as rain directly into the mikvah, or were fed into it via an underground spring,
is the closest thing we have to a piece of heaven on earth. It gives us the
opportunity to reunite with our spiritual source.
Just before a woman immerses herself in these G-dly waters, she says a
prayer, inviting G-d to santify her marriage - her most important
What she says through the prayer, in effect, is: Almighty, this is the
most sacred relationship in my life. This, our conjugal union, is one of the
greatest expressions of that sacred relationship, and I don't want something as
sacred as this to be devoid of Your Presence. I want You to join me in this act.
I want You to be there. And then she immerses and in a sense, touches
hands with the Creator of the world.
The late Rabbi Shlomo Twerski, who was my brother-in-law and a brilliant
Torah scholar, said that it's particularly appropriate that going to a
mikvah is a woman's responsibility, as opposed to an man's, because mikvah
santifies the family, and it's the wife's wisdom, more so than that of any other
family member, that builds the home.
In a sense, a woman creates her family. For nine months before their births,
she shapes a perfect internal environment for her children; then for nearly two
decades after birth, she sculpts their emotional, mental and physical
environment. If she doesn't have children, she's still the one who, in most
families, will have the most creative influence on the home atmosphere and those
living under her roof.
When a woman goes to the mikvah, before she returns home to exercise once
again her creative intelligence, she - the human creator- asks for the blessings
of the Creator of the universe. She asks G-d to come back home with her, to join
her in her sacred activities, and foremost of these, to join her in her
As with all other mitzvahs, or commandments from G-d, we go to the mikvah
because we know it's the will of G-d, the G-d who not only created us, but who
knows our needs better than anyone else ever will, including ourselves. We need
no other reason than this. We also know that for all our intelligence, we will
never know the ultimate reason behind this or any of the other mitzvahs, because
as mortals, we have limts to what we can comprehend. And yet, there are many
things about each mitzvah we can understand, and indeed we are encouraged to
explore them as much as is humanly possible.
All mitzvahs are kindnesses, and mikvah is no exception. The Talmud, which
expounds on the laws in the Torah, explains a simple rule of human nature in
discussing sexuality: something constantly available to us eventually loses
luster in our eyes. We allow routine to replace excitement, and grow
contemptuous and bored.
Boredom in marriage is no trifling matter. It is extremely destructive; in
our times it is the leading cause of divorce.
This is the first and most obvious advantage of mikvah. For approximately two
weeks every month a husband and wife are off liimits to each other. Because of
this monthly vacation, the Talmud tells us, a husband and wife become
like a bride and groom to one another each month, again and again. There is
perpetual freshness to the relationship, if you doubt it, ask any couple who
practices mikvah and they'll confirm it, although they may blush over this
Second, mikvah teaches us the value of restraint. In a world where infidelity
is as common as it is today - there have been estimates that almost one of every
two married men has been unfaithful - people have to learn the art of restraint.
Unfortunately, it's not taught in school.
Within the Jewish marriage relationship, if a husband and wife can't have
access to each other at regular intervals, it means they must learn to control
themselves within the marriage relationship. Outside the marriage relationship,
when a temptation suddenly develops and they're called upon to exercise
retraint, they know how to respond. It's not as if they're suddenly called upon
to run ten miles when they've never run a block.
Third, mikvah gives us the invaluable asset of spaces in our
togetherness, to adapt the poet's phrase. It affords us the opportunity to
be ourselves in a way not possible if there were no separation period.
One of the primary reasons our individual souls were brought down to earth is
to actualize a part of ourselves that is unique and unlike anyone else. Yet in
marriage it's easy for two people to get lost in each other and not know where
one ends and the other begins. This is not the Jewish ideal. The oneness of a
Jewish marriage is not a unity of sameness, or identical mates who neither
oppose nor challenge one another. Rather, it's a dynamic interaction between two
individuals, who maintain their identities, even though they are joined by one
goal, one heart and one soul.
Two people who strenthen their individuality during this time of separation,
join again and enrich each other precisely because they've strengthened that
part of themselves that is theirs and only theirs.
Finally, mikvah teaches us that we are not objects. Because I don't belong to
you and you don't belong to me in the same way we do during the togetherness
period, I am compelled to treat you as a whole person, not as an object for my
pleasure. This is an invaluable lesson in our society which, for all its
obeisance to feminism, continues to treat women as objects, in advertising, at
the workplace and too often in the home itself.
We also learn to communicate better with each other through mikvah. Many
problems can be glossed over by a hug and a kiss. During the two weeks without
physical contact, a couple has to learn how to talk about everything, including
many difficult things, We get to know each other's inner thoughts in ways we
might not otherwise. Intimacy - real intimacy - is the result.
As we stated before, these benfits just scratch the surface of the spiritual
effects mikvah has on our lives and on the world. There are depths of this
practice we, as humans, cannot fathom. But one thing is clear:
Without serving a higher purpose, our physical intimacy is just that -
physical. With mikvah, and G-d's presence, the sexual relationship changes from
something that's completely physical, an act which subhuman species also engage
in, to an act of holiness and the highest expression of two people.