My Mikvah Journey

My Mikvah Journey
MIKVAH -  The word evokes a relaxing, spiritual, beautiful image in your mind, for some, it unfortunately evokes a negative, degrading image of how women are treated as “dirty,” “impure,” or “unclean” in Orthodox Judaism.  I have recently read some articles in Jewish publications about women’s experiences with the mikvah;  some have been positive, while others painted a very negative image of the mikvah, one that is punitive towards women, which I found disturbing.  I felt sorry for the female authors of these negative articles, because they have such a limited understanding of such a valuable Jewish ritual. 

My own personal experience of going to the mikvah has been a positive one, and actually, I found the mikvah to be a necessity in my life as a woman, not just a “religious obligation,” as I had originally viewed it.  I would like to share my mikvah journey with you.

Just a few weeks before I turned 32, I was getting married for the first time.   I was very happy and excited, not nervous at all, as both my husband, Wayne and I strongly believed we each had found each other’s beshert (soulmate).  My friend, Miryam Piekarski, the Rebbitzen of our local Chabad House (Chabad of Hamden, Connecticut), offered to teach me about the mikvah and laws of Family Purity before I was married.  I agreed to let her teach me, but I had reservations:  I was unsure if I really wanted to go to the mikvah; it was a ritual that seemed unfamiliar and foreign.  I couldn’t tell her my true feelings – I didn’t want to hurt her feelings or insult her way of life.  So I dutifully came to her house several times to learn.

Most of the mikvah rules seemed unnatural and too strict to me.  After all, I never grew up with them; this was all new to me.  Miryam explained how to check for certain factors during the monthly cycle which meant a woman was a “niddah” and this meant she couldn’t have any type of relations with her husband, not even holding hands or a hug, for at least twelve days.  I couldn’t understand or relate. I asked  myself how could a woman be in this state?  Why couldn’t a man ever be in this state? It didn’t seem equal or fair.  Were women second class citizens?  And no relations for at least twelve days?  This is where many women are turned off by the laws of Family Purity and mikvah. 

Miryam began to explain to me why women are in the “niddah” state during and following their monthly cycles.  I realized the explanation I was about to hear would either allow me to have positive feelings towards the mikvah or give me reason to believe the laws of Family Purity and mikvah were a lot of old-fashioned nonsense.  I would decide to either accept the mikvah or reject it.  It was a crossroads.

Miryam explained that a woman’s body is fashioned to create life. This potential for life to grow inside us puts us on a very high spiritual level, a very pure state.  When we go through our monthly cycle, it is not a death, but is akin to a death:  the potential for life existed within us, but is lost.  Therefore, a woman remains in an “impure” state (niddah) until this monthly cycle is over (plus seven more days), and she is able to reach her naturally pure, highly spiritual state once again after immersing in a mikvah. 

This impure state is not physical; a woman is not considered dirty or physically unclean.  It is a spiritual state, similar to when a Jewish person leaves a cemetery; one must ceremoniously wash the hands because being near death puts a person (male or female) into a spiritually impure state.  So a woman, who has had her monthly cycle, has experienced within her a kind of “death” (the loss of the potential for life), and must reach a spiritually pure status again.  This takes a minimum of twelve days (depending on the length of one’s cycle) and requires immersion in the mikvah.

One may ask why a man never experiences such a state of impurity?  Are women beneath men, second class?  Are women considered dirty?  Do men want to “control” women?  I’ve heard all of these questions before.  But isn’t the answer obvious?  Men don't have that incredible, holy potential for life inside of them.

They can’t do what women can do—grow and nurture life within their own bodies.  A man cannot physically reach the very high spiritual state that a woman is potentially able to.  A man also cannot experience what is like a death, in his own body, and therefore, cannot experience the spiritually impure state a woman experiences.  A man cannot achieve physically or spiritually, what a woman can do—create life (with the help of Hashem).

As Miryam was explaining all of this to me, it made sense, but it still seemed very “old-worldish” and a major inconvenience.  It seemed unnatural for a husband and wife not to have any type of physical contact for at least 12 days.  I didn’t feel that I could ever do it or want to do it.  I wondered how keeping separate could help a marriage—wouldn’t a husband and wife grow apart?  Maybe the couple would lose interest in each other.
 Miryam explained:  In marriage, things can get “old” quickly.  That initial “honeymoon” type of excitement doesn’t last.  This separation, which usually lasts about two weeks, brings back that feeling of excitement, just like a honeymoon.  That old saying, “You always want what you don’t have” is very true: A married couple who is forced to separate for a period of time misses each other.  Instead of losing interest in each other, they are only interested in each other, and the separation brings back those feelings of courtship and honeymoon; everything seems new again when the couple reunites.

Miryam also mentioned that during the “niddah” period, a couple is forced to talk to each other, they must verbally communicate their feelings.  A couple can’t look at each other or treat each other as physical objects; they must view each other as friends, confidants, and partners.  A couple must express themselves in other ways besides the physical.  This is extremely important in a marriage, where the physical aspect of a relationship may at times overshadow the spiritual aspects.

All of this information Miryam gave me made sense.  But I was still a bit uncomfortable about actually separating from my husband for two weeks and immersing myself in the mikvah.  Going to the mikvah still seemed empty and meaningless to me; I believed it would feel like dipping into a pool and then just getting out.  I felt kind of guilty for my feelings, but I had to be honest with myself and with Miryam.  I agreed to try it before my husband and I were married, because I saw how important the laws of Family Purity were in Judaism and didn’t want to just ignore or discard such an important tradition, which Jewish women have been observing for thousands of years.  I did tell Miryam that the mikvah and its associated laws that I was about to observe for the first time didn’t feel right to me; they still felt unnatural and uncomfortable.  Miryam was very understanding, and explained that since I never grew up with the concept of mikvah and had little prior knowledge of it, that my feelings were very normal.  I was glad she understood.

I must admit, the period of separation from my (then future) husband was difficult for me.(Not growing up Orthodox, I was used to holding hands, hugs, etc. before marriage.)  I knew that the separation would be over soon enough, and then we would be married.  We did use that time to communicate, take walks, make plans and it was nice.

My husband also went to the mikvah for the first time a few days before we were married and enjoyed the experience.  As for me, well, that first time in the mikvah felt kind of strange; it didn’t feel necessary.  I didn’t feel “different” or that I was getting any kind of benefit from it.  I didn’t feel like there had been any kind of “death” inside me.  But all these feelings changed very soon.

Shortly after we were married, Wayne and I were both very excited about the prospect of starting a family together.  A few months went by with no success.  I remember feeling very sad and frustrated.  I had been going to the mikvah with Miryam during those three or four months, and on the way there, I’d tell her my feelings.  She offered me hope and was very positive about my situation.  This time alone with Miryam was very helpful to me.  And I think going to the mikvah (which you must do with another woman in attendance to make certain you hae prepared properly and are fully immersed) encourages women to form relationships, communicate and help each other.  It was just what I needed.

Whenever I went to the mikvah, right before I immersed, Miryam always told me to pray for something, for myself, for someone else, anything.  I usually prayed for others, but this time I prayed for myself, for a baby in our future.  It was at this point that I began to understand why a woman’s monthly cycle was like a death; when a woman wants to conceive, every month that goes by, every menstrual cycle, can feel like a death, a potential for life that is forever gone.  I felt it.  I really felt it.

After what seemed like an eternity (but was only about 4 months), I found out I was expecting.  Wayne and I were thrilled.  We told our families, and even began to think about names.  Was it going to be a boy?  A girl?  I remember it was Purim when we had just found out and I dressed as a clown for Chabad’s Purim party.  I have pictures of myself on that day, I looked so happy.  It all seemed miraculous and magical to me – a baby growing inside me.

At eight weeks, Wayne and I went for a routine ultrasound.  I couldn’t wait! I remember seeing a tiny blip on the screen in that dark exam room, and saying to Wayne, “Look!  There’s the baby!  I see our baby!”  I was so excited.  A couple minutes later we were told, quite abruptly and coldly by a technician, “There’s a problem.”  “A problem?” I asked, as tears started to form in my eyes.  The technician answered, “There’s no heartbeat.”  My heart sank.  The technician told me to get dressed and wait for the doctor in another office.  I had had a miscarriage.  There were no symptoms; it was a complete surprise. About a week later, due to the miscarriage, I had to get a minor surgical procedure the day before the first Passover seder.  (The next day I had nine people at my house for the first seder, but thankfully my mother cooked, and the beautiful seder helped to take my mind off of everything that had happened for a while.)

Needless to say, Wayne and I were very, very sad.  I felt like there was something wrong with me.  Why did this happen?  This is when everything that Miryam had told me about the mikvah began to make total sense:  I had had not just the potential for life growing inside me, but an actual life, and lost it.  This was not like a death; it was a death.  I  needed to go to the mikvah at that time.  It was not just an “option” or some strange ancient ritual anymore; it was a necessity.  I beleive that going to the mikvah after this experience was more valuable than any kind of counseling or book, or anything else I could try, to help my mental and spiritual well-being.

I really felt like I needed a fresh start, both physically and spiritually and the mikvah, I believed, was the only way to get that feeling.

Four weeks later, I was ready to go to the mikvah again.  Miryam drove me, and filled me full of hope on the way there.  I told her I couldn’t wait to step into the mikvah.  I believed the warm, soothing water would feel very healing.  And I was right.  As I immersed, step-by-step, I felt that feeling of death that I had experienced leave my body, replaced by the feeling of potential for new life.

A woman’s body is made to create life.  A miscarriage, or even a menstrual cycle, can feel like an unnatural state for a woman to be in when she is trying to conceive.  During this state of “niddah,” she is spiritually impure; she has experienced a death, or at least something like a death.  How can a woman, one who is trying to conceive and perhaps is feeling frustrated and sad, just act as if nothing has happened, and continue to have relations with her husband?  A woman may need a break, to regroup, to think, to feel hope.  The separation that the laws of Family Purity and the mikvah immersion require allows for this important physical and mental break (and there are probably benefits for the husband too, who may be feeling emotions similar to his wife).

Women who believe the mikvah and laws of Family Purity are degrading to women, making women feel dirty or unequal to men, just don’t understand.  They don’t realize the value of the mikvah, the feeling of getting a fresh start, both physically and mentally.  They don’t know that a woman may need some time to herself, to reflect and relax.  The laws of Family Purity laws and the mikvah accomplish this. Maybe a woman needs a break from the normal routines of marriage.  She needs days to communicate and express herself to her husband, in a non-physical way, and he needs to express himself in this way too.  How invaluable and unique the mikvah is, along with the laws of Family Purity.  Yes, these laws can be strict and difficult to follow, they require much effort and self-control, but the results are definitely worth it.

Post Script:  After going to the mikvah the last time (a month after miscarrying), two weeks later I found out I was expecting...thank G-d have given birth to a healthy child...

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