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.