MIKVAH FOR THE THOROUGHLY MODERN WOMAN
I began my married life with a non-Jewish husband, an
ambitious nature, a college degree, and a bit of an attitude. Sure, I was a
spiritual person, although I couldn't define spirituality for you, except to say
it was a character trait that you either had or didn't have. It was something
you just felt. It meant being a good person and having the ability to empathize
when something bad happened, the ability to make a nice toast at Thanksgiving,
the ability to feel sad at a sad movie. That didn't have anything to do with
In his 30's my husband, a business executive, had a premature
mid-life crisis. Unlike some men, my husband's crisis was one of faith and
spirituality (there is that word again) and did not include a red sports car. My
husband found Judaism and was searching a spiritual path that would eventually
lead to a Conservative and then an Orthodox conversion.
In beginning my own spiritual quest, I found myself sitting
unexpectedly with two women who were learning with an Orthodox
rebbetzin about the Mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath. I was there by
accident. I didn't pick the topic. At first, I really had no idea what we were
learning. I liked the rebbetzin. Very quickly, I found l liked the
Like me, these women were not from religious backgrounds. They
were smart and funny, and we laughed our way through this intimate class. We
were discussing our spiritual love lives. It was not unlike an episode of a
certain infamous TV show set in New York City. We were just four women talking.
Sure, we were not drinking Cosmopolitans and we were sitting in a shul,
but hey, we were being real and there were no cameras recording us.
JUST SAY NO
I was being introduced to an ancient approach to marital harmony
-- a truly kosher approach to intimacy: the mitzvah of Taharat
HaMishpacha or Family Purity. It wasn't at all what I thought. It didn't
include any of the angry repressive ideas that I had heard about from my
grandmother. It was a loving approach to intimacy that did not demean the
participants or generate guilty feelings about our bodies. What a
Simply put, it's a system of some "no physical contact" days every
month during the time a woman menstruates plus another seven days, followed by
immersion in the waters of the mikvah. That means a minimum of 12 days without
any touching. Oy. That's a long time. Why would a modern, married woman impose
such a system on herself, not to mention her "happy-with-the-way-it-is-now"
husband? Limiting physical intimacy, at first, seems counterproductive. How
would it affect my marriage?
For several weeks, the four of us gathered in the shul to
learn about the mitzvah. None of us had committed to actually going
into the mikvah. I kept repeating that I was there just for the learning and the
company, not for the how-to part. Um, I don't need this stuff thank you, but it
started to sound good.
Then there was learning all the information about the mikvah dip
itself. I went to see the mikvah in our community and it was beautiful. It
wasn't like a black pit under the shul; it was like a women's spa.
The claim was that Taharat HaMishpacha did wonders in
recapturing the magic of being newlyweds and maintaining freshness and romance
in marriage. Eventually I was intrigued enough to decide to take the plunge.
NO ONE IS GOING TO GET
I took a leap in this part of my journey to decide to follow the
rules of this mitzvah, even though I didn't comprehend them. I knew it
was something I'd have to first experience in order to gain some kind of
understanding. This difficult leap was made easier because I was exploring a
mitzvah that involved only me and my encouraging, supportive husband.
No one else needed to know, and no one was going to get hurt if I kept an open
mind and learned.
The religious women I met weren't prudish ladies who dressed in
the closet. They loved their husbands and their lives, and they were going once
a month to the mikvah. Maybe I could give it a try. With the physical
aspect of our relationship sidelined during these days, we are limited to
talking. What a concept. So we talk. This is great. There are no false hopes
being raised, we both understand and are committed to the boundaries that
observing this mitzvah has set. Somehow, this is not restricting, but
actually freeing. We are free to talk into the night about our goals and dreams.
We are free to express our love without demonstrating it physically.
At the end of the separation days, comes the big day -- or rather
the big night -- when the woman goes into the mikvah. Before she can immerse
herself in the spiritual waters of the mikvah, she must make sure that there is
nothing on her body to separate herself from the experience of the enveloping
water. She removes all makeup, jewelry, and nail polish, and soaks in a bath,
becoming completely clean. The final step before the mikvah is a shower, hair
washing and combing.
The preparations reminded me of preparing for a big date -- the
attention to the physical connecting me to my body in a very powerful way. I
work out all the time, but I never pay this much attention to myself, except to
The idea of removing physical barriers to the water caused me to
reflect on the physical and emotional barriers that we put in our lives that can
keep us separate from our spouses. I thought about things like the TV, the
computer, the blackberry, and the phones as well as psychological barriers to
intimacy, like feeling fat or somehow undesirable that can keep me separate from
my husband and how I can take action to eliminate these things. And how by being
open to learning about the mikvah, I had already taken the first step.
from being repressive, this is pampering as tradition and ritual, physical
self-involvement as part of a spiritual quest. That works for me.
Human beings are different than animals. We can make choices and
not act purely on instinct. We can elevate all our physical actions by bringing
God into the picture and making them holy. The Taharat HaMishpacha laws
enable us to bring God into the bedroom.
My experiment culminated with a mikvah dive that allowed me to
experience the warm mikvah water as God's own embrace. Bringing God into the
most intimate area of my life has made me eager to take on more