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Is Mikvah Insulting to Women?

Is Mikvah Insulting to Women?


Recently I attended a poetry slam, where amateurs and professionals alike performed their spoken word. I thought the performances would include whimsical rhymes or cryptic messages. But then it happened. One performer started lambasting believers of the Bible for considering women to be “dirty” during their menstruation, quoting Leviticus 15:19: “When a woman has her regular flow of blood . . . anyone who touches her will be unclean.”I was offended

I was offended—and not just by the attack on this verse, which I consider to be as holy as every other verse in the Torah. No, I was offended on behalf of my mother. You see, I was raised in a home with an adjacent Jewish ritual bathhouse, a mikvah, where women immerse after their menstrual cycle is completed.1 This mikvah was a gorgeous redwood cottage that housed an artwork-adorned lounge and a spa-like pool. My mother spent 30 years volunteering to run this mikvah, and I never once got the impression that these women were coming because they were “unclean” or “dirty.” My mother dedicated her life to making the “mikvah experience” one of joy and meaning for these women.

As I took in the words of the poet that night, I thought to myself, “Could it be that my mother really believed these women were ‘dirty’ and in need of hygienic decontamination?” My subsequent research revealed that meticulous physical cleanliness is actually a prerequisite for immersion in the mikvah.2 Furthermore, the mikvah ritual was also a key component of the Temple service performed by the high priest on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.3 And the mikvah is so integral to Jewish life that its construction takes precedence over that of a synagogue.4

Most strikingly, it turns out that the original Hebrew wording of the verse in question was subtly but distinctively mistranslated. The Hebrew word used in this verse is not the word meluchlach, “unclean,” but the word tamei, a word associated with ritual “impurity” that doesn’t imply physical dirtiness. This state of impurity, too, has no unique connection to women, but indicates a spiritual condition that many people experience on different levels anytime they encounter a state of being that is devoid of life. So, for example, the word tamei is used to describe someone who encounters a deceased individual.

So, what is the mikvah really about?

Going to the mikvah is not about getting clean. It’s about becoming more alive. The Torah is obsessed with purity because the Torah is obsessed with life itself. Whether it’s valuing life over religious adherence,5 preserving fruit trees that sustain life,6 or even toasting L’chaim, “to life,” the spirituality of the Torah is anchored by life. “Keep My statutes . . . and live by them,” says Leviticus 18:5. In other words, our soul’s purpose is not the journey to a promised heaven or hell. It is the everyday journey through this lifetime that our souls were created for. Therefore, there is no explicit Our soul’s purpose is not the journey to a promised heaven or hellmention of heaven or hell throughout the entire Five Books of Moses. However, the Torah does highlight the countless stories of women and men who pursued spiritual enlightenment within the physical constraints of this reality. For it is not in death that we find the highest form of spiritual fulfillment. It is in the everyday struggle to do the right thing that you and I become “created in the image of G‑d.”7 Thus, the ultimate spiritual heights will be achieved in the messianic era, when we will enjoy eternal life in our physical bodies, when G‑d will “abolish death forever.”8

Both the high priest and the menstruating woman represent this message. Both go to the mikvah when encountering “death” and embracing new “life.” The high priest must go to the mikvah after coming in contact with death9 or before praying for forgiveness on behalf of the Jewish people, who are then bestowed with new spiritual life.10 The menstruating woman honors the egg that has been shed, which will never house a human soul, as she embraces the fresh potential for new life. This is the magic of the woman, “mother of all life”11—her monthly cycle represents a lesson that even the highest of priests must learn: we can honor the death of lost opportunities but treasure the life that our new choices create.

Far from being “dirty,” the woman’s cycle reminds us that it is the changes and opportunities of this physical life that define our greatest spirituality. Going Going to the mikvah is a spiritual rebirth to the mikvah is a spiritual rebirth, a time to refocus on life and start anew. On the night a woman immerses in the mikvah, she and her husband can resume intimacy, experiencing the holiness and newness of a “wedding night.”12 Additionally, many people (including men) immerse in the mikvah in preparation for a religious holiday or event.13 And the mikvah pool itself, which must contain pure rainwater from the skies,14 encapsulates our soul’s mission: to bring heaven down to earth.

So, if you’re that poet from the bar and you’re reading this right now, I’d like you to know that the Bible does not consider women to be “dirty.” Rather, women embody a deep truth—we experience the highest purity when we fully honor life.

And my mother would agree.

Talmud, Bava Kamma 82a.
Talmud, Megillah 27a; Meshiv Davar 2:45.
Talmud, Yoma 84b.
Talmud, Niddah 31b.
Talmud, Yevamot 46a.
Rabbi Levi Welton is a writer and educator, and a graduate of Machon Ariel Rabbinical Institute and Bellevue University. He is also a member of the Rabbinical Council of America. He has served Jewish communities in San Francisco, Sydney and Montreal, and currently resides in New York, where he works with youth and young adults.
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Grace Maloisi May 9, 2014

Very well written Thank you so much for this.

I long so much to do mikvah, but hopefully one day i will. We are observant and i always like to read more and more about Shabbat and everything that goes with this. Reply

Anonymous May 8, 2014

A different point of view This story is retold in the first person singular, so that what you said, Lady, is holy to me. As a matter of fact, Vayikra 15:19 is perfectly clear, at least to me, and I feel comfortable whenever I interpret it with a first level of understanding. I'll explain myself more precisely; Here is the verse again: "19. If a woman has a discharge, her flesh discharging blood, she shall remain in her state of menstrual separation for seven days, and whoever touches her shall become unclean until evening." The verse does not say that she is unclean, it is whatever she comes in contact with what becomes unclean. As a personal experience I dare to testify that whenever you touches a woman in her state you'll be able to experience such uncleanness. You might say how a clean body can make unclean another body? Well, you can pose that question only in the physical world but Torah is referring to something in the spiritual world. And if by chance it happens to someone and that someone feels himself unclean, then he will know of the wisdom it's hidden in the Torah's words because that wisdom will be revealed to him. And most marvelous of all is that everybody will become clean after the Mikvah. Reply

Sue Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON Canada May 8, 2014

A very good explanation, thank-you... The mikvah was a wonderful and transformative experience for me. I long to go again... Reply

zeev benoni May 7, 2014

Levy Well said and beautiful Reply

Sarah Masha W Bloomfield, MI, USA May 7, 2014

Well written, and well reasoned.

Add in this:
When a woman gives birth to a baby, a full life (not just potential) she is nidah for longer, because that life has left her body. If the child is a girl the time she must wait is twice as long than if the baby is a boy. Why? Because the baby girl will (G-d willing) grow up, and also carry life someday.

BTW for those contemplating mikvah usage: while the mikvah contains rainwater, it will be completely clean and hygienic!

To Cheryl in VA:
(I'm assuming you are married.) What stops you from going? If you read of what so many women have done, or are still doing, to keep these laws you will realize you can overcome many obstacles! If it is that you are, umm, "old" then you should go, just once, no matter how long it has been since your last menses. I've been shomeret for a number of women who know they are going just one time. It is always emotional, gratifying, and positive! Reply

Anonymous May 7, 2014

Are women Dirty? Thanks for this lovely explanation of the text from Leviticus. I am not Jewish by birth, but am one in spirit as I love Torah and have learned much by listening to tapes by Rabbi Tovia Singer. How blessed to be a Jew, the descendants of those who heard the very voice of G-D speaking to them. . Reply

Anonymous May 7, 2014

Wow! You just made my life so much better - I always thought women were looked at as being so dirty - but it is a beautiful thing. A woman is a holy vessel for G-d. Women are special to G-d to experience life giving seed. Man has pervereted what God said is holy. I love the Jewish perspective - I love the Jewish people and I am proud to be a daughter of the Most High G-D! I feel so much better about being a woman! I was born from a family that thought boys were more valuable than women. Actually - to G-d everyone is of value! Thank you Rabbi Welton - you don't know what this does for my self esteem! G-d loves His women! Reply

abey May 7, 2014

In the wisdom of God Periods of sexual separation which God instituted, so that man be not governed by it , just as fasting to be not governed by food. For being governed by anything in this world is but to slavery, even to the Spiritual. Reply

Anonymous NM May 6, 2014

Thank you so much for this explanation. I have often wondered about why women were considered to be dirty during that time. Your explanation makes sense to me. Thank you again. Reply

Cheryl Zapien Virginia May 6, 2014

The Mikvah I totally was in agreement with your lovely article. Regretfully (and I truly mean that) I have never had the opportunity to go to the mikvah and that is something I'd like to do. I like the ideas of new beginnings and the chance to once again start over fresh. I was quite taken with the idea that we even honor the little egg that didn't get the opportunity to become a person. Reply

Yehudis New York May 6, 2014

I liked the article, it wasbut I still don't understand what it means by "anyone who touches her will be unclean".

Who is this referring to? Reply

Shoshanah Dallas May 6, 2014

Beautifully put and gracefully handled. This concept continues even after menopause with Rosh Chodesh.
B''H Reply

Rabbi Levi Welton May 6, 2014

Thank you! Thank you everyone for your gracious comments.
To Caryn in South Africa: perhaps because it is only with the husband that she can create new life. Reply

Chaver May 6, 2014

So beautiful this is so beautiful, thank you Rabbi Welton. This is exactly the spiritual insight and wisdom and understanding that makes me proud to be a Jew and proud of our Sages. Reply

NU Arizona May 6, 2014

Thank you Thank you for such a beautiful explanation of the Mikvah. I am not jewish, but I read these article because I learn so much. There is a depth and richness in your culture and religious beliefs that I find so very enriching. Reply

Moyshe PA. United States May 5, 2014

Inspiration An informative and sensitive essay. I was moved by this line, "we can honor the death of lost opportunities but treasure the life that our new choices create." Rabbi, respectfully, you should have been up there reading poetry. Reply

Caryn South Africa May 5, 2014

Thanks for a beautiful article, really enjoyed it. Question - I understand and accept why a woman and her husband are separate during her cycle. However, if she is tamei, why is it okay for her to have physical contact with other people besides her husband? I understand it wouldn't be practical, but from a spiritual point of view what's the difference? Reply

Devorah Romano May 5, 2014

Wonderful article, Levi! Thank you for writing this important piece. Reply

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