The Marriage Disciplines

The Marriage Disciplines Total renunciation of sex is, in some faiths, a major discipline. In his autobiography, Gandhi calls this brahmacharya and praises its power of spiritual ennoblement. The Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, as well as some eastern religions, require celibacy in certain holy orders. For such austerity, Judaism has no match. The mild disciplines we do have, in this as in every part of life, apply without distinction to all members of the faith.

Jewish married couples follow an old rule of alternating abstinence and enjoyment. During twelve days after the menses begin - or seven days after they cease, whichever period is longer - wife and husband sleep apart. For this reason twin beds have existed in Jewish homes as long as the religion itself. The main practical result of this is that they rejoin at the time when the wife is most likely to conceive. It is the exact opposite of the rhythm system of birth control. For couples who love each other the separation is a hardship, perhaps the one real hardship in the Hebrew disciplines. Some medical authorities call this alternation good for the health of wife and husband. One marriage manualist said it was "the only answer" to continuing freshness in married love. Whatever the force of such opinion, this self-governance in sex has always been part of marriage in the Jewish faith.

The wife marks the end of the abstinence by immersion in a ritual pool built on an ancient plan. This pool (the Hebrew word is mikva) has been the usual place of the rite for many centuries. So crucial to the religion did the Talmud deem this ceremony that it instructed impoverished communities to sell their synagogue building, or even their last Holy Scroll, in order to put up a pool.

The all, but general abandonment of the mikva in the United States, followed by its gradual revival, is almost a history of American Judaism in miniature. When the great migration brought crowds of Jews to these shores around 1900, they found no ritual pools, and those that the pious at once put up with scraped-together pennies were necessarily dismal and poor. By contrast, any dwelling above the lowest slum line offered bath plumbing unknown in European experience, or indeed in any previous time or place in the world, excepting the baths of the rich in ancient Rome. It seemed odd to descend to the gloomy squalor of the remote mikva for a rite of purity, when water was at hand in the home, in the private luxury of a tub.

A rationale arose against observing the rite of the pool, which soon equaled in popularity to the argument against the food laws that they were only for hot countries in the old days. The purpose of the mikva was to make sure that women in the old country bathed once a month. This argument could not survive any true information about the rite, but the level of information had dropped low. Abstinence from baths is in Judaism a sign of mourning. Frequent bathing, daily if possible is assumed to be normal conduct. The rite of the pool, which takes a few seconds, is wholly symbolic. In all the great religions, immersion has been a symbol of purity and rebirth. The force of the notion is too clear to need spelling out.

But alas for semantics in a time of transition! The King James English word for a woman in separation was "unclean". In this sense all Israel is "unclean"; we have been since the fall of the Temple. But for these concepts there were no ready New World words. Young American women were annoyed by the term: this, and the poverty of the mikvaos, worked up hostility to the ancient practice. Pulpit declarations that children of women who omitted immersion were all bastards did not soothe any unquiet spirits. Tub baths replaced formal pool immersion for more and more couples. Since nearly all the women bathed daily anyway, the gesture had no ceremonial force: and it had no connection with Jewish law. The whole discipline of separation, which turned on the vivid rite at the close, dwindled and was eventually dropped, in most cases.

That it ever came back at all will seem astonishing, except to those who know Jewish history and the power of the river of Judaism to run uphill. In many cities of the United States new ritual pools have recently been built or are going up, handsomely tiled, with something like beauty parlors in their anterooms. The number of women who go to them is so far small compared to those who do not. But the day is past when the mikva was for a fading trickle of foreign ladies. The women who go are mostly young Americans.

As Judaism revives generally - and that it is doing so is unmistakable, from the added Hebrew in Reform and Conservative services to the mushrooming of temples and synagogues all over the land - life and attention, I suppose, flow back to the marriage discipline. Perhaps, too, the mikva has come to seem less strange as people have realized that the Christian ceremonies of baptism and immersion are evolved wholly out of our ancient Jewish rite. The analogy may offer a bridge to Western-educated minds. At any rate, the hostility of the immigrant generation has dimmed away. There is instead, at most, indifference usually based on a lack of information. The information is not, oddly enough, easy to come by. Sex is a great subject for jokes in America, and we have schooled ourselves, too, in solemn faced swallowing of graphic lectures on its mechanical side, even in popular magazines. But to talk about it naturally is another matter.


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