A more absurd projection of Christian sexual asceticism onto Judaism would be
hard to imagine. Think Again. First, a confession: I am not a woman. Though
subject to the same periods of sexual separation as my wife, I am not required
to immerse in the mikve prior to resuming sexual relations. So anything I might
say about the institution of mikve is obviously not from firsthand
But I can read well enough to recognize a hatchet job. And that
ability to read, as well as listen, provides access to what religious women
themselves say about experience of the mikve.
That brings me to Anat Zuria's
documentary Purity, dealing with the Jewish laws of family purity surrounding a
woman's menstrual cycle, which was recently the subject of lengthy profiles in
Ha'aretz and this paper ("Pure but not simple," Jerusalem Post Magazine,
November 8, 2002). Like all such exposes of the lives of religious Jews, whether
fictional treatments or documentaries, Purity has garnered widespread attention
and numerous film-festival invitations.
Reviewers tend to treat these works
as uncontestable statements of fact, rather than expressions of a particular
point of view. Even Amos Gitai's purely fictional work Kadosh, which the
director himself admitted was agit-prop - his way of "voting against the
religious right" - was treated as if it were an unassailable treatment of
marriage in the haredi community.
Gitai's film thus established for New York
Times reviewer Stephen Holden "the profound and shocking misogyny" of the haredi
world that has its source in a "fear and loathing of sex." In a similar vein,
Yair Sheleg in Ha'aretz and Shula Kopf in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, simply
provided a platform for Zuria to vent her "anger" about the mikve and the laws
of family purity, with nary a positive word about either to be heard.
Zuria is, to say the least, a highly biased observer of how religious women
experience mikve. She comes from a purely secular background, and, more
significantly, continued to define herself as secular even after her marriage to
Yossi, a religious soldier who she met in the army. She agreed to keep the laws
of Shabbat, kashrut, and family purity not out of any conviction, but as the
price to be paid for marrying her husband. These laws were forced upon her by
her husband without any attempt to present them in a positive light. Following
the highly idiosyncratic religious philosophy of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Yossi
simply told her "that's the Halacha, and that's that." No wonder she experiences
these laws as something negative: They were imposed upon her against her
ONE WOULD never know from the media reports of Purity that the laws of
family purity, as the formerly haredi Judith Rotem writes in Distant Sisters:
the women I left behind, "have been made public in an unprecedented manner," and
are one of the most effective tools for attracting secular Jewish women to
religious observance. Feminist sociologist Debra Renee Kaufman reports in her
study of newly observant women, Rachel's Daughters, several cases of women who
came to Orthodoxy after first following the laws of sexual separation with their
boyfriends, now husbands.
One PhD psychologist told her, "I had counseled
many young people about sexual practices. When I first read about taharat
mishpacha, [the rules] made absolutely good sense to me psychologically."
Suzanne Kest, who lectures in Los Angeles to secular Jewish women about family
purity, reports that many are "brought to tears by the thought of a society in
which every move is not subject to the lens of male appraisal, and where they
may be truly free to be themselves."
Unlike Zuria, who was provided with no
explanation of the laws imposed upon her, the women interviewed by Kaufman
"describe their sexuality within marriage not as a biological need or self-
expression, but rather as a holy ritual.... The symbolic framework emerging from
their language, imagery, and experiences moves beyond the self and dyad to the
community at large."
When they immerse in the mikve, they feel a sense of
connection to Jewish women throughout history. One muses, "The Jews at Masada
used the mikve." For these women, the comparison between their menstrual cycles
and the waxing and waning of the moon, which marks the Jewish calendar, is
clear. "Renewal and regeneration of life forces," Kaufman found, "are themes
that run throughout these women's commentaries."
"The family-purity laws are
so in line with me as a woman.... I have two weeks each month for myself," one
woman told Kaufman. Far from experiencing the mikve as a burden, gynecologist
Channah Catane reports that many religious patients "request hormonal treatment
[after menopause] solely to continue going to the mikve."
Kopf, in her review
of Purity, quotes, without questioning, Toronto University professor Tirzah
Meachum's assertion that the rabbis viewed sexual relations as an evil that they
tried "to eliminate as much as possible." A more absurd projection of Christian
sexual asceticism onto Judaism would be hard to imagine.
The Talmud relates
the story of a student who hid under his teacher's bed. When he was found out,
he explained himself simply, "This too is Torah and I must learn it." According
to the rabbis, the two cherubim on top of the ark, one female, the other male,
locked in embrace, symbolized the love of God for the Jewish people. Immersion
frequently precedes spiritual ascension in the Torah. The Jewish people all
immersed before receiving the Torah; the convert immerses as part of the
conversion process; and a woman immerses prior to resuming marital relations
with her husband.
The Talmud describes the laws of family purity as rendering
wives forever attractive in their husbands' eyes, and both survey evidence and
individual testimonials support this claim. Pioneer sexologist Alfred Kinsey
found that over a lifetime, Orthodox Jews have the most frequent sexual
relations. When others have petered out, the alternating periods of abstention
and coming together help Orthodox Jews sustain sexual interest and excitement.
Even the prohibitions on touching and passing between spouses when the wife is a
nidda, which are frequently inconvenient or bothersome, serve to reinforce an
awareness of the electricity between them.
In the opening narrative of her
film, Zuria says, "For 2,000 years women having been going to the mikve.... They
always go at night, in the dark, so as not be be seen," and Kopf concludes her
admiring piece, "Meanwhile, with resignation and anger, she keeps going to the
mikve, always at night, in the dark, as required by Jewish Law, so as not to be
seen."Leaving aside that women go to the mikve at night because that is the
earliest time they are permitted to immerse, both Zuria and Kopf conflate what
is private with what is shameful. The very privacy of Orthodox sexual relations
intensifies those relations. Kaufman reports that by "maintaining and preserving
appearances of chastity.... the ba'alot teshuva [newly observant] seem to
stimulate their sense of sexuality." Even feminist icon Germaine Greer has
acknowledged, "Chastity endows sexual activity with added importance by limiting
its enjoyment to special persons and special times."
Let us hope that Purity
and Kopf's review do not prevent more Jews from discovering one of the secrets
of a successful Jewish marriage.