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A Feminist on Mikvah

A Feminist on Mikvah


Q: Let's tackle the question of sexism first; do you sincerely feel that there is no sexism in Jewish life?

Slonim: It is never wise to apply terms that have a set meaning and connotation in one society to another system of belief and thought that is radically different. Such is the case with the word sexism. Seen through the lens of Western societal values where the inalienable rights of an individual are sacred, and equal access and opportunity are the means towards that goal, Judaism may well appear to be sexist. In comparison to society at large, where the struggle for power and control — often between men and women — looms large, Judaism may seem out of step. But that kind of view ignores the crucial differences between life in general and Jewish life. Jewish life is not about rights, or power, or access. It is, above and beyond all else, The world needs men and women; blurring that line does no one a favor covenantal. It is about actualizing the covenant between G‑d and each individual and G‑d and this world.

The Torah teaches that the ultimate purpose of our lives — male and female — is to fill the universe with G‑dliness and spirituality. This we do by infusing our every action with sanctity, by using every opportunity to free the G‑dly spark inherent in each facet of creation. There is a name for this exercise — mitzvot. This is the definition of Jewish life. Unquestionably, women have equal obligations and privilege in bringing G‑d's plan for this universe to fruition. Just as clearly they have their own strengths, modes of expression, and areas of concentration.

In theory, an egalitarian society sounds like the ideal antidote to sexism. In real life, however, it is neither tenable, nor remotely satisfying. A body needs each of its different organs. Families are comprised of distinct units. A partnership needs diverse strengths; a viable institution depends on people serving in various capacities. The world needs men and women; blurring that line does no one a favor.

There is sexism in day-to-day living all around us, and Jewish communal life is certainly not untainted. There are sexist individuals, boards, institutions, etc., and we must continue to agitate and exercise until that is no more. But the Torah system of life is not sexist. It offers, nay demands, the same of both men and women — the fulfillment of the Divine will.

I consider myself a feminist. The basic task of feminism is to expose the lie that women are any less important than men and to fight it on every level. Many women are secretly afraid that in fact that may be the truth. A woman who is certain that her position and function was ordained by G‑d, and that it is every bit as important spiritually, is not plagued by these doubts. She recognizes her femininity as a strength, is certain of her worth, and uses her powers to the maximum.

Jewish feminine spirituality is a complex and delicate study. My book, Total Immersion, endeavors to highlight an area of Jewish ritual that has always belonged to women. And it does so in a fashion, that for the first time, offers a deep, intimate probe through the prism of their own experience. Mikvah offers a virtually unparalleled venue for spirituality and self-growth and has spawned many a Jewish heroine. The volume is filled with a montage of incredibly powerful images: the physically challenged woman who immerses despite all odds, the women in Santa Fe who doggedly build a mikvah with their bare hands, the woman in totalitarian Russia who lowered herself into a freezing well, the women in Sweden who interrupt their cruise and brave jagged-edged boulders to immerse in an ocean. Are these women equal? The better question is: Who is equal to them?

Q: We know that words often fail us when it comes to esoteric topics, but can you attempt to explain, especially to the skeptic, what "spiritual impurity" is? And, is it something that must be accepted on faith, or is there any rational basis for its belief?

Slonim: The laws of impurity, niddah and mikvah are decidedly supra-rational notions. We speak here of statutes that must be observed on faith. In this regard we are all skeptics. But there are a few things to be said on the subject.

It is crucial to dispel the myth that purity is the religious term for clean, and impurity, the concomitant term for dirty

It is crucial to dispel the myth that purity is the religious term for clean, and impurity, the concomitant term for dirty. Impurity is neither tangible nor discernible; it is a spiritual condition. When we open the text, we see that the Torah clearly makes spiritual purity a requisite to entrance into the realm of the holy. In biblical times, and through the Second Temple period, the interplay of purity and impurity took center stage in Jewish life. Entrance to holy space — first the tabernacle and later the Holy Temples — was contingent on spiritual purity. Today, it is in sacred union alone that this law is enforced. For now-until the Holy Temple is rebuilt — it is in our bedrooms that we build the most hallowed of all hallowed shrines. Immersion in the mikvah is the gateway to the holy ground of conjugality.

Judaism teaches that the source of all taharah, or purity, is life itself. Conversely, death is the harbinger of tumah, or impurity. All types of ritual impurity, and the Torah describes many, are rooted in the absence of life or some measure — even a whisper — of death.

When stripped to its essence, a woman's menses signals the death of potential life. Each month, a woman's body prepares for the possibility of conception. The uterine lining is built up in anticipation of a fertilized ovum. Menstruation is the shedding of that lining, the end of that possibility. The presence of potential life within fills a woman's body with holiness and purity. In its absence, impurity sets in, conferring upon the woman a state of impurity referred to as niddut. Impurity is neither evil nor dangerous. It is simply the absence of purity, much as the darkness is the absence of light. Only immersion in the mikvah has the power to change that.

Seen in this light, the laws of niddah and mikvah are neither sexist nor misogynist, they are simply G‑d's created cycles of being.

Q: The argument is often made that a couple's observance of the laws of family purity enhances their sex lives and that it makes "every month a honeymoon." Do you think this is true? Do you think this is the purpose of the laws?

Slonim: In answering your question I want to be careful of, on the one hand, over-romanticizing the observance and, on the other, not minimizing its unique and very real effect on a couple's sex life and entire relationship. The observance of family purity is not a panacea or magical potion; building a healthy marriage is hard work and a multifaceted endeavor.

But I think it is true to say that mikvah observance brings to marriage a definite element of excitement, renewal, and respect that might otherwise not be there. It is no secret that society at large struggles with sex-related The mikvah regimen forces couples to find ways of expressing love, care, and concern all without touching skins issues on a continuous basis. For a large percentage of couples the problem is simply boredom. Mikvah does much to alleviate this seemingly benign, but rather insidious, condition. It brings the dynamics of anticipation — almost titillation — and a heightened sexual consciousness more often associated with courtship than with marriage into every month, for years. It brings couples an enhanced appreciation of each other as they pine for a union so near and yet not within their reach. It does much in the way of correlating their moments of desire for intimacy and eases the power struggle that haunts so many relationships. In short, a man and woman who love each other and don't have an open-ended opportunity to be intimate will be less likely to take the time they have together for granted and are much more inclined to use every opportunity for lovemaking and sharing maximally.

Perhaps, the most important gift is a result of the mandated physical separation. The mikvah regimen forces couples to find ways of expressing love, care, and concern all without touching skins. For two weeks they must finely hone that almost lost form of art: communication. With physical intimacy not an option, they are catapulted into a deep friendship, which in turn can only help fuel the passion they unleash when they come back to each other's sexual embrace.

As to the purpose of these laws, the Talmud does link enhanced marital harmony and bliss to these laws and it is a phenomenon that is confirmed in the laboratory of life. Still, this may not be true for every couple. Therefore, my final words on the subject are that we can never fathom the ultimate purpose of, or reason for, G‑d's command.

Q: Do you ever think that rituals such as mikvah are nice human inventions rather than Divine commands? Accepting the Torah as written by G‑d is a big leap for many.

Slonim: Clearly, accepting the Divine source of Torah is a big leap and each one of us must make that leap on our own. The fact remains, however, that it is precisely and only that belief that gives mikvah and the other rituals value and relevance. While some of us may greatly appreciate the rituals and find strata of meaning, even benefit and comfort in observance, in the final analysis it is commitment to G‑d's word that assures adherence. Without this underlying, absolute premise, observance would most likely take on a sporadic, rather than binding, character; it would vary based on time, circumstance, and mood.

To take mikvah as an example: Immersion in a pool of water to effect spiritual purity, not physical hygiene, is by definition an irrational, inexplicable action, hardly a nice human invention. For every woman who speaks of immersion in glowing terms, describing a sense of renewal and spirituality, there is one who either fears or loathes water, finds the preparation taxing, and/or views the whole thing as an inconvenience. The roughly two weeks of abstinence inherent in the mikvah discipline, while affording couples distinct benefits, runs contrary to human instinct and desire. It can hardly be termed "nice," nor does it feel good to be physically removed from your beloved. Yet the Jew who is committed follows the laws under every and all circumstances.

Total Immersion contains the largest collection to date of first- hand accounts, stories, and tales on the subject of mikvah. I believe that the many accounts of self-sacrifice on the part of women who observed mikvah — in the former Soviet Union, in the ghetto, and even in modern-day America — despite incredible difficulty are the most powerful section of my volume. These stories of faith, and its steadfast expression, have touched me deeply and I know they will affect readers in like fashion.

See The Mikvah and Mikvah Time

Rivkah Slonim is the education director at the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University. An internationally known teacher, lecturer and activist, she travels widely, addressing the intersection of traditional Jewish observance and contemporary life, with a special focus on Jewish women in Jewish law and life. Slonim is the editor of Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology (Jason Aronson, 1996; Urim, 2006) and Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday (Urim, 2008). Slonim and her husband are the grateful and proud parents of nine children.
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Anonymous toronto February 25, 2015

life Women can sustain life even through menstrual cycle and this life can partner with nature . That is why laws of niddah are important. otherwise why would such importance be given to the cycle in the Torah. When it comes to women, a rabbi has limited knowledge because he does not suffer such cycles. Laws of niddah are woman`s domain . Reply

Yafa Beyla Cappon Sacramento October 3, 2013

Healing Waters I can attest to the power of mikvah...for nearly a year and a half, I could not go to the mikvah due to the horrific auto accident I suffered in 2007. During that trying time of healing enough so I could learn to walk again, my dream was to be able to enter the waters of the mikvah, steps and all. On the day I was able to go in again, I rejoiced. It was one of the best days of my life...and now, I have entered menopause, and am waiting to be able to have that one last blessed immersion that will end my having to perform this most important mitzvah a woman can undertake. It is a bittersweet time for me as I move into the next phase of my life. I am grateful to Hashem for his infinite wisdom...and allowing me to fulfill it to the best of my ability. Mikvah is a blessing-it gives us time to take sanctuary, and renew ourselves. We need that in this world. The seeds of holiness are deeply planted and mikvah waters them and helps them to reach fruition. Reply

Julie Chicago, Il August 1, 2012

"equality" is the sugar coating to secular sexism I agree with Stan. Being a young woman who is making her way from secular life to one of greater observance I have found the secular view of the Jewish woman's modesty and observance to be grossly misguided. Women are reguarded as holy so much so that men are commanded to do many mitzvoth just to achieve a level of holiness that is innate to the woman. Women are seen as the foundation of the home, not the basement and in many orthodox families and communities it is the woman who is the primary bread winner. A man cannot commit to a life of study without his wife's blessing. A man cannot demand to be intimate with his wife but a woman can of her husband. In secular society where immodesty reigns women are objectified and degrated. They cease to be viewed as holy and are lowered to the status of a means to fulfill a carnal desire. I cannot speak for other religions but what I have learned is that observant Jews afford greater respect to their women than non religious secular feminists. Reply

Stan Soboleski Atco, NJ USA September 3, 2011

All major religions regard women w/ disdain? To Sugar Coating Aug 4/10 Ayle:
I disagree. All religions except Jewish and Biblical Christians regard women with disdain!
Islam treats all women with contempt.
Hindus regard women as 2nd class objects to be used.
American Secularists regard all women as competitors and sex objects to be jumped on at every opportunity.
Biblical followers of Almighty G-d are the worlds only people who respect and protect women and rescue them. It is built into a man's DNA to be on the look out to help the feminine gender.
Biblical observers are the only humans who believe in one man for one woman for life, even though it doesn't work out that way half the time.
The non-Covenant beings of the world are glorified animals in treatment to the feminine gender including their mothers.
Being a man, I see my faults of the early days as a boy and my mistakes but the Holy Bib is the only women liberator on earth that teaches men to respect girls and women. I do my best but many women cannot trust men.Stan Reply

Ayla August 4, 2010

Sugar Coating Sugar coating disgusting sexism in religion or claiming that you shouldn't apply the world sexism to something religious doesn't make the sexism any less damaging or abhorrent.

All major religions regard women with disdain and being a Jew doesn't exempt one from that. Reply

Anonymous West Orange, NJ October 31, 2009

Mikvah I have read a few books on the subject...I love the way Slonim(hope spelling is correct) is so honest and pragmatic in her approach to the subject...Some will love and some will not enjoy...She is not "sugar-coating" this for us. Reply

Sharla Grossman March 28, 2007

Rivkah Slonim's Mikvah Article I've never considered myself a feminist; in fact, I've made a point to identify myself as an anti-feminist as defined by Western terms of sexism. Rivkah did a brilliant job of expressing what it means within the observant Jewish context, which I found both intriguing & enlightening. While I swim fairly well above water, I am not fond of water, and the idea of complete immersion scared me to death as a bride. It still does...I dread immersing each month. Articles such as this one serve as a reminder to keep the faith, so to speak, and the focus of why I continue to go, even though the very human side of me fears going. Thank you for such a fine article. Reply

Anonymous Cleveland, Ohio March 29, 2006

mikvah My marriage would not exist without, for one big thing, the Mikvah. Reply

David Aziz Levi New York, NY March 17, 2006

Stunning Article This article covers so much so well. It is extremely well written. The questions are simple and direct and the answers are thorough and insightful. I have just grown in my Yiddiskite. Thank you Reply

yossi jerusalem, e. israel March 17, 2006

i would like to compliment you, on your wonderful article and i want to praise how you were careful to stress the point that although we can offer ideas behind the mitzvoth, the bottom line is that these are not the "reason" for the mitzvah, and the real reason why we keep them is because they are the commandments of hashem. but i do have one thing to point out. you mentioned that our bedrooms are the holy of holies and therfore one must purify themselves before entering, hence keep the laws of niddah. but once again the "real reason" for mikvah, in regards to niddah is, because the torah says that a couple is forbidden to have relations while she is still in her state of niddah! eventhough they may be impure from other impurities (i.e. keri, mes etc.) they can be intimate. it is specificly niddah which happens to have a restraint on physical intimacy, which still applies today.
once again thank you for your beautiful article, may you have continued blessing in all your endeavors