The Purifying Waters

The Purifying Waters Is it true only oppressed Orthodox Jewish women use the mikveh? Surprisingly, the feminist stereotype just won't wash.

Introduction:

The Jewish family unit has always enjoyed an almost legendary reputation for morality and stability. This reputation was earned notwithstanding the myriad of foreign influences to which the Jewish people have been subjected throughout the ages.

The ultimate proof of any system is its practical effectiveness. The Jewish system for preserving the moral integrity of the family is embodied in the Torah laws of Family Purity and Mikveh. These standards of conduct add the dimensions of humanity and sanctity to the marital relationship. They regulate without repressing and give purpose and direction to the natural drives which are so perverted in our societies today.

The accompanying article, "The Purifying Waters", casts a modern light on this old system of practices. It is hoped that it will dispel many of the common misconceptions regarding Mikveh and will increase further study and interest in the significance of this mitzvah in modern American-Jewish life.

Ruth Rovner, the author of the article, is a freelance writer. She is a founder and faculty member of the Jewish Free University. The article first appeared in the newsmagazine Today / The Philadelphia Enquirer in 1974, and is reprinted here with the publisher's permission.

During their first year of marriage, Anne and Joseph lived in Buffalo. Once every month, they made an unusual and entirely private trip to Rochester, 75 miles away.

While he waited in the car, she entered a small building. She sat in a waiting room, together with several other women whom she didn't know. Then she was led to a tiled room with a sink, shower, and bathtub. There she bathed and showered, combed her hair, washed her face, removed her wedding ring, and slipped a plain white sheet over her body.

Pressing a buzzer, she waited for the female attendant to appear. Together they walked down a small corridor to what looked like a miniature indoor swimming pool. While the attendant watched, Anne removed the sheet and descended four steps into the water.

She was standing in lukewarm water. Carefully she crouched, feet apart, until her body was immersed. Then, standing, she reached for a small towel to cover her head. She recited a prayer in Hebrew, then immersed herself once again the same way, then one final time.

Coming out of the water, she returned to the room, dressed, and dried her hair. On the way out she paid a fee to the attendant, then left. It had taken about an hour. She and her husband then drove 75 miles home.

Anne and Joseph made that same trip faithfully every month; rain or shine-once even in a snowstorm. "It was quite a bad storm," Anne recalls cheerfully, "but the main roads were clear. We managed to get through."

Anne is an Orthodox Jew, and it would take more than bad weather to stop her from getting to the nearest mikveh once every month, no matter the distance. Going to the mikveh is one of her most important obligations as a Jewish wife.

Orthodox Jews live most carefully in accordance with law and tradition. In all, 613 commandments govern Jewish life, though not all of them apply to each individual. Three are exclusively for women: lighting the candles to usher in the Sabbath and holiday eves, consecrating the first cake of Sabbath bread, and observing the laws of ritual purity. The last is by far the most challenging commitment.

On the first day of her menstrual flow each month, a wife is rendered "Niddah" and sexual relations are forbidden for a minimum of 12 days - at least five days for the menses to end, and then seven consecutive "clean" days. At the end of this time, she must go to the mikveh for the ritual cleansing that removes her Niddah state and renews the sexual relationship.

Mikveh (also spelled mikvah) means a "collection of water." A mikveh is a natural body of water, immersion in which renders someone "ritually pure." In ancient times, Jewish men used the mikveh to remove impurities before entering the Temple, and some Jewish men still use a mikveh to purify themselves before certain holidays. Brides are supposed to visit the mikveh before their wedding. Mikveh is the last step taken when someone converts to Judaism. Mikveh is also used for immersion of certain utensils before use.

Today, the mikveh is mainly used by the menstruating wife. It means she is readying herself, as one woman explained, for the holy act of sex under G-d's law.

Preparing to use the mikveh pool is hardly like preparing for a swim. The woman must bathe for at least a full 30 minutes. She must wash her face, remove all make-up and nail polish, brush her teeth, and comb her hair to remove every tangle, cut fingernails and toenails. She must remove all jewelry and. in fact, any object from her body - even Band-Aids or false teeth. She must be totally free of anything that prevents water from reaching every part of her body. Even if she prepares carefully at home, she must at least shower before entering the pool.

The immersion itself also involves careful procedures. The woman may not enter the mikveh "before the time that the stars come out at night - 45 minutes after sunset - or later," since the seven clean days are counted sunset to sunset. She must be totally immersed, including every strand of hair, and cannot hold onto anything. While immersed, her hands should not be tightly closed, nor her eyes and lips. When she stands, the brief prayer must be recited correctly: "Blessed are Thou, O L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us by His commandments and has commanded us to observe the ritual immersion." The attendant supervises the entire procedure.

In the 1970's, mikveh is hardly a household word. Many Jewish women have never heard of it. If they have, they think it is some archaic ritual long since discontinued. Often, too, it is linked with superstition and fear. "The first time I heard about mikveh, it was one of those old wives' tales," recalls Adele, who now observes mikveh faithfully. "When my mother was getting married, her mother-in-law asked her to go to the mikveh before the wedding. My mother was furious! She thought the mikveh was something used by disreputable women - you went there to get purified of sin before your marriage."

"My daughter's in there now" said a woman sitting in a local mikveh waiting room recently, looking around rather tensely. "She's marrying an Orthodox man, and she's decided to keep this tradition. But when his family first asked her to go to the mikveh, everyone says I turned green. I admire the choice, believe me, but I never went to the mikveh in my life, and I'm a nervous Jewish mother, what can I say?" She had even brought along a friend for moral support.

"Well, how was it?" she asked rather gloomily when her daughter emerged, hair still a bit wet, putting on her earrings, and looking only a trifle disturbed when she glanced at her very short fingernails.

"Fine!" said the girl, smiling and looking much more serene than her mother. "It's hard to describe - but it was quite an experience." Now she will use the mikveh every month of her married life - except during pregnancy, when the ritual purity laws do not usually apply, unless she has problems with staining.

Reversals like this, with daughters becoming more committed to tradition than their mothers, are not rare - but may seem surprising in light of the times. With feminist ferment all around, the searchlight lately is often turned to the role of the Jewish woman and her presumable second-class status within her culture and religion. Last year, the first national conference of Jewish feminists convened, and it generated some high-voltage discontent. Just this month, Ms. magazine devoted a special forum to the question: "Is It Kosher To Be Feminist?"

How, then, is it "kosher" for modern women to accept - even choose - a ritual like the mikveh, which seems to impose rigid strictures on their married lives and even their bodies?

"Following the laws of mikveh doesn't demean me at all." says Judy, age 32, who has two children, juggles two jobs, and considers herself pro-feminist. "In fact, I think the mikveh elevates Jewish women. It says a man doesn't have unquestionable rights to a woman's body. He can't demand sexual relations at his pleasure, and it also gives her some privacy at a time she might need it."

"My husband and I are equally obligated in our commitment," she continues, "except that I do the actual immersion and he doesn't." Married 14 years, she recalls when neither of them went to synagogue or observed any customs, and she thought mikveh was "something for rabbis' wives or ultra orthodox women." Gradually they became more involved in Jewish life until they made a joint decision, six years ago, to observe the laws of ritual purity.

Mikveh observance is far from obsolete in Philadelphia. About 200 women use the local mikveh regularly. It is a diverse group, in ages, background, and lifestyle. Some women from Orthodox backgrounds accepted the laws at the time of marriage. Others, from non-traditional homes, made the choice to observe "family purity" at some point in their marriage.

"I'm not Orthodox, I just like coming to the mikveh." said a young woman, two years married, who started to use a mikveh while living on a kibbutz in Israel. "One reason I like this," she continued, "is because it's one of the three specific mitzvahs (laws) specifically for women. I think a lot of young women today who aren't Orthodox are also making the decision because this is a woman's law."

Women more steeped in tradition, who have observed the laws from the outset of marriage, are often very articulate about their commitment.

"It's a very concrete ritual which expresses the idea that all of marriage is sanctified, holy," said Mary, "and that by engaging in sexual activity in marriage, you are fulfilling a commandment of the Torah. It's good to feel that sex has the sanction of G-d, that it is wonderful, beautiful. It's like a green light, a go-ahead sign."

Adele, age 32, and mother of four, is a graduate of Stern College - the women's branch of Yeshiva University - and she holds four BA degrees. Her husband is an associate professor: Although she became Orthodox as a teenager, she leads a "secular life" - as do many of her Orthodox friends. She sees no difficulty in accepting the ritual purity laws.

"To me, this ritual raises your life from the everyday to the spiritual," she explained. "The whole legal frame of reference is a way to give your daily life some higher meaning. The very fact that everything is so careful, and so regulated, means that life is moral, very serious and important."

"To appreciate and use physical things in a special way - that's a healthy and important expression of human existence."

But ritual purity laws vitally affect sexual life. Those couples observing it have built-in rhythm to their lives: For about every two weeks of every month, they are abstinent, or, as one woman put it, there are two "off'" weeks and two "on" weeks.

The abstinent period can last well beyond the prescribed 12 days - if some menstrual irregularity occurs, or if the wife is unable to get to the mikveh exactly after 12 days.

The abstinence period has it's own strict rules. In his book, Jewish Family Life, Rabbi Sidney Hoenig cautions that "all physical contact whatsoever is forbidden", and advises that anything that may lead to such contact is forbidden, including eating from the same plate, sitting close together in a moving vehicle, and passing an object from hand to hand. Separate beds are a necessity for proper observance of these abstinences.

To outsiders of the tradition, this may sound unbearably rigid or downright harmful to a happy marriage. Yet again and again, the women interviewed agreed that the laws of purity lead undoubtedly to happier, healthier, more exciting sex lives. They do not observe the laws for this reason - but it turns out that way nonetheless.

"It heightens anticipation every month, and it recreates the feeling of a bridal situation for both partners." said one woman, married 11 years. "As if you are a virgin, you sense you are about to have a new exciting experience. The anticipation of sex is as much a part of the whole observance as the immersion itself. It's a month-long process."

"Like a honeymoon every month!" said Allan, age 35, after six years of observance. "Yes, it's a sacrifice from the male point of view," he admitted candidly, "because your wife won't always be available. But the sense of anticipation every month - the build-up - is something other marriages don't have and it makes married life exciting."

"In secular society, people are always looking for ways to increase pleasure through new techniques and new ways," said the wife of a rabbi. "But Judaism really has the key. It's restraint that increases enjoyment."

"It's such an interesting psychology for the woman," mused a 34-year-old wife. "You become forbidden fruit within your own marriage! To me that always seems a brilliant psychological device."

"Imagine what it's like being married 25 years and still having your husband eager for you!" exclaimed a woman whose oldest child is now 22. "Also you have the assurance of trusting your husband because he's shown restraint and self-control over all these years. I know other women become worried or suspicious when their husbands are away, but I would never have a moment's doubt about my husband."

"Sometimes it's a relief for a couple to know that sex is not expected, that there are other ways to find each other," said Eunice Miller, a marriage and family counselor. "Masters and Johnson often prescribe abstinence as a deliberate part of their therapy, it lifts the obligation of sex, and lets the couple relate in purely emotional ways, and from that closeness the sexual response can flow more easily."

Ms. Miller holds a master's degree and is a clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors. Married and the mother of three daughters, she was not orthodox but has adopted mikveh as a personal choice.

Professionally, she was particularly interested in how the ritual purity laws affect sexuality in marriage, and she researched that issue. A sample group of women volunteered for the study, which was presumably the first of its kind. She was invited to present her results at the annual meeting of the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors.

"Judaism really builds on the concept of sexuality in marriage in a positive way", she says. "The sexual act afterwards is as much a part of mikveh ritual as the immersion. It says that sex is good, it's right, it should be done."

Long before the age of women's liberation Judaism recognized women's sexual needs. The Orthodox Jewish marriage contract explicitly states that the husband is obligated to provide sexual satisfaction to his wife, just as he must provide food and clothing.

The marriage clause comes straight from a law in Leviticus - so it goes right back to Biblical times. There's also a 16th-century Code of Jewish Law, the "Shulchan Aruch," which enumerates the details of these laws.

After the mikveh immersion, the husband is expected to fulfill his wife's sexual needs. And curiously, the mikveh may enhance women's sexual experience in another way, according to some theories. Marie Stopes, a London scientist, studied the cycle of desire in women - what she calls a "rhythmic sense tide" - - and found it had two peaks. One came right before the onset of menstruation; the other came seven days after the end of menses. This, of course, is exactly when sexual relations resume if one follows the ritual laws.

Dr. Stopes noticed this coincidence, "The old Jewish plan," she wrote in her book, Married Love, "is almost in exact harmony with the law of periodicity of recurrence of women's desire shown in my chart."

No one says it's easy to observe mikveh rituals. For some women it means travelling quite a distance, or getting a babysitter if the husband drives.

"Of course it's sometimes very difficult, and not always convenient," said one woman, "but as with other areas of Jewish life, convenience is not the issue."

Despite the difficulties it may seem to impose, women who observe mikveh seem genuinely to enjoy the experience, even its preparatory details.

"Taking a 30-minute bath is a great luxury with three children and a full time job!" said one. "And putting on the sheet before you go to the mikveh - it's worn toga-style - is a great fantasizing experience."

"I spend a lot of time preparing for mikveh, and it relaxes me," said another. "It puts me in the mood for the experience - and I'm also thinking that my husband and I will soon be reunited."

For some, though not all, the immersion itself can be a deeply moving experience.
"I feel very fresh and tingly, though not just in a physical way," said one. "It's something very special, because I'm doing this just for me and my husband. There are so many things I do for my children, my friends, and others, but this is just for the two of us."

"My first time at the mikveh? I'll never forget it," reminisced a woman whose oldest child is now 23. "I had learned all the details on my own, but they made me kind of uneasy. Then, the night before the wedding, I went, and what a feeling! It was some kind of holiness, elevation, I can't really explain it -- but I knew I felt very different. And I still get that feeling when I go to mikveh. I've been going for 25 years."

"The first time, I felt very anxious, because it wasn't really a part of my family experience," said one woman. "I felt unsure, nervous that I wouldn't get all the details right, but I felt a deep emotional connection to my Jewishness - a sense of something very spiritual happening. It gives me a sense of spiritual renewal, stronger than I ever feel in a synagogue."

"It's definitely not a sense of being cleansed from menstruation," said one woman emphatically, echoing a thought.stressed by many women, yet, it is this association of menstruation and mikveh - and the seemingly elaborate emphasis on the removal of menstrual blood - that other women seem unable to accept.

The origin of mikveh goes back to Leviticus: "And if a woman has an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be in her impurity seven days". Later, when the laws were codified, details were elaborated. During the seven-day period, the woman is expected to examine herself internally twice daily. If any spot of blood appears anywhere during the seven days, the count must start all over again. If she sees discharge of uncertain origin, - i.e. not necessarily menstrual - she is supposed to consult a rabbi who makes the legal determination.

This is the kind of detail that sets some feminist teeth on edge. Jewish feminists often deplore the apparent preoccupation with the woman's menstrual state. Some see echoes of primitive taboos against menstruation. Jewish women editors who compiled an anthology on the Jewish woman for Response magazine, wrote: "It is difficult to avoid the implication that we are dealing here with the potent residue of an ancient taboo based on a mixture of male fear, awe, and repugnance towards woman's creative biological cycle."

But those who are knowledgeable about Jewish law and tradition often assert that the laws involve a highly sophisticated symbolism. It centers on two basic Jewish concepts, "tumah" and "tahara" (loosely translated as unclean and clean or pure and impure). The menstruating woman is "tameh" (impure) and has to purify herself through mikveh, but so did men in the temple days, who had been in contact with certain "impurities." What all the states of "tumah" had in common was some touch with death.

A menstruating woman is not impure because of her body, says one interpretation, but because she, too, has this "whisper of death." Because the blood was potential life when in her womb, it is a token of dying - a potential loss of life - when shed.

Rachel Adler is a Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley, and enough of a feminist to be one of the guest speakers at the first national Jewish feminist conference. She is married, and Orthodox, and when she goes to the mikveh, she sees something far different from hygienic cleansing of an unclean body. She sees a symbolic re-enactment of death and rebirth.

"The mikveh simulates the original living water, the amniotic tide on which the unborn child is rocked. To be reborn, one must enter this womb and 'drown' in living water."

In contrast to Ms. Adler's symbolic way of viewing her mikveh experience, other women reply simply: "I do it because G-d commanded me to." For any Orthodox Jew, this is the ultimate and valid answer, since they believe the laws are G-d-given and thus to be accepted unequivocally.

A visit to a mikveh is pervaded with modesty and discretion. When husbands drive their wives, they do not park facing the door of the mikveh. For the woman, going to the mikveh is totally anonymous - no screening, no questions, or names. She simply waits her turn, prepares and then immerses, then pays a small fee and leaves. Conceivably any woman could use a mikveh, though it is intended only for brides-to-be and married Jewish women.

At the local mikveh, a cheerful but discreet atmosphere pervades. The women relax, read, or talk casually, while waiting their turns. Some come from as far as Trenton or Atlantic City. The facilities include a small waiting room, three individual rooms for baths and showers, all radiantly clean and equipped with soap, towels, comb, nail file and scissors, polish remover, dental floss, shampoo - everything needed for total preparation.

An attendant oversees it all. She answers buzzers, brings towels, supervises the immersion for each woman and declares "Kosher!" when the woman has completed the immersion properly.

Every mikveh looks much like every other, because of the religious building requirements. But the facilities surrounding it can be quite plush. A few mikvehs in California, for example, are almost like swank health salons with plush carpets, dressing rooms with private bathrooms, and the latest modern hair dryers.

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