On a warm, adolescent night many moons ago, my friend Daniel Feld dragged me to a slam-poetry bar in the foliaged backyard of some Bay Area establishment. One performer started lambasting believers of the Bible as misogynistic. Her contention? The verse in Leviticus that states regarding a menstruating woman, “ ... anyone who touches her will be unclean.”1

This was my first night at a poetry bar. To be honest, II was offended on behalf of my mother had thought I’d hear annoying whimsical rhymes and vexing cryptic sonnets. Instead, I witnessed the sheer power of women and men baring their souls by clothing them in word. And the words of this spoken-word artist got under the skin of my heart. I was offended. Not on behalf of the billions who consider this verse part of holy Scripture, but on behalf of my mother.

Mommy had spent basically my entire childhood tending to the ritual needs of Jewish menstruating women through volunteering to run the Women’s Mikvah, nestled in the foliaged backyard of our home in Berkeley, Calif. As a child, I’d often have to do my homework alone because Mommy (the “Mikvah Lady”) had her nights booked. “Mommy, is it true?” I wanted to ask her as I sipped my Coca-Cola in the shadows of the bar, nursing my feelings. “Do you really think those women you served are “dirty” and defective?”

But I already knew the answer.

I had witnessed her educating—in oh-so-many ways—those who challenged her about it around our Shabbattable. “The Torah teaches that the greatest way to decorate one’s home is through hachnasat orchim (hosting guests),” she taught my siblings and me as we helped her set the table for 10. Like Sarah and Abraham, the first Jews, her “tent” was “open on all sides,”2 and our guests stemmed from all sides of society. College students from U.C. Berkeley, professors, the religious, the unaffiliated, cops, hippies, Republicans, Democrats—you name it! Naturally, our table was often full of lively discussion and, even more often, questions.

So I could surmise Mommy’s reply.

Far from being “dirty,” a woman’s cycle reaches the deepest spiritual truths. A woman’s menstruation cycle reminds us that it is the ebb and flow—the changes and opportunities—of this physical existence that empowers us to relive and “reknow” the poetry of life. In other words, mikvah is not about getting clean. It’s about getting alive. By honoring the egg that has been shed, which will never house a human soul, and embracing the spirit to begin anew, the woman menstruates the wisdom of the highest of priests—that we honor the death of lost opportunity and treasure the life of a new choice.

The Torah’s scriptural and ritual “impurity” (the Hebrew word used in the verse is not meluchlach, “unclean,” but tamei, which accurately translates as “ritually impure”) is not gender specific nor does it have anything to do with hygiene. Meticulous body cleanliness is a prerequisite before a woman immerses in a mikvah,3 the male High Priest immersed in the mikvah when he prayed for new life for his people in the Holy Temple,4 and many women and men use the mikvah in preparation for High Holidays, Shabbat or religious events.5

“The mikvah is a holy place,” my mother would often tell me. “G‑d listens very closely to what these women have to say. Just reading Psalms and praying under the same roof as these women brings many blessings.”

I“The mikvah is a holy place,” my mother would often tell me knew the poet in the bar didn’t know what she didn’t know. And what she didn’t know was how much Mommy cared. For it was I who had kneeled in the dirt next to my mother, watching her plant a bustling flower bed in front of the mikvah. Mommy wanted the women to feel beautiful. It was I who trailed after my mother as she hummed Chassidic melodies, carrying load after load of fluffy white bath towels up from the mikvah to our house to wash, dry and fold with the meticulousness only a scientist like hers could deploy. Mommy wanted them to feel luxuriously special. And it was I who knew that, along with her other accomplishments as wife, mother, Ph.D., scientist and office administrator, Mommy wore the label of “Mikvah Lady” with pride.

For Mommy, the mikvah was an exclusive “Girl’s Club,” an expression of her Chassidic feminism. One time, a college man sitting around our Shabbat table began challenging my mother about the patriarchy, her being a “baby machine,” and the repressive role of Chassidic women. He didn’t know the emotional scar that miscarriage had left on my mother, but she smiled, nonetheless. “The more you study Torah,” she replied as she poured some piping-hot chicken soup into his bowl, “the more you see how women are the voice of wisdom, of breaking the glass ceiling of possibility, the voice of redemption.”

The examples of this are of biblical proportion. The Torah scholar and leader Deborah, who adjudicated Jewish law under a date palm;6 the daughters of Tzelafchad, who successfully led a revolution for women’s rights before Moses, sanctioned by G‑d;7 the prophetess Chana, who founded the masterpiece of Jewish liturgy, the “Amidah”;8 and, of course, the moment when G‑d admonishes Abraham to “listen to her [his wife, Sarah’s] voice.”9

Which reminds me of a joke by Rabbi Yehuda Ferris about the man who dies and sees two lines outside Heaven’s gate.

“What’re the two lines for?” he asks the guy in front of him.

“Oh, this line is for all the men subservient to their wives. You know, compromise is the key to marriage. But that line,” the guy pointed to the second line that only had one soul standing on it, “is for the men who were able to successfully stand their ground and miraculously keep their marriage and their manhood.”

“How’d he do it?”

“We don’t know,” the guy shrugged his shoulders. “None of us can muster the courage to ask him.”

Looking up and down at the millions of men on the first line, our hero states, “Well, I’m gonna go find out.”

He trots across the fluffy clouds to the second line and tentatively asks, “Excuse me, sir. I don’t mean to interrupt you, but we’re all wondering the same thing. How’d you do it? How’d you manage to be a real man among men, not listening to the voice of your wife?”

The man turned, scowled and said, “Don’t ask me. My wife told me to stand here.”

All jokes aside, my mother never considered herself subservient to the patriarchy in Judaism. “Just different,” she’d say. “Men have their mitzvot and women have ours. Sometimes, our religious realms overlap and sometimes not. It’s OK to be different.”

Maybe that’s why my Mom was a “Trekkie,” a fan of the “Star Trek” TV shows featuring people with different backgrounds and skills all working together to go where “no man has gone before.”

Indeed, in the Torah, it is specifically the women who have led our people towards the frontiers of redemption: “In the merit of the righteous women, our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.”10

For my mother, feminism is Torah, and celebrating femininity is celebrating the Divine. Hence, the Divine Presence is referred to with a feminine word, Shechinah;11 Shabbat is referred to as a “Queen”12; and one’s spiritual identity is birthed via matrilineal descent.13 “Mother’s Day is every day,” Mommy would often say.

“In the Torah,” my mother schooled the young college man, Celebrating femininity is celebrating the Divine “We’re not the ‘housewife’ but the ‘house life’—the akeret haBayit, the dominant life force in the micro-community (aka the family). This includes women without children or husbands.

“Being a Chassidic feminist doesn’t mean we have to strive to occupy every male role or think we need to climb the rungs of a secular societal structure predicated upon systems of misogyny. On the contrary, we are daughters of Chava (Eve) and above the systems of men.”

I remember wondering what she meant. “What systems of men?” Then I went away to yeshivah and learned that exile is synonymous with the rise of male energy and redemption synonymous with the rise in female energy.14 Hence, the Talmud tells us, “When the Jews were exiled, the Shechinah [the feminine presence of G‑d] went with them.”15 The era of exile is punctuated with war and the need for good to conquer evil, whereas the era of the geulah, “redemption” (another feminine word), is personified by peace and revealing the goodness within the evil. Hence, Beruriah schooled her husband not to pray for the death of evildoers but to pray for their return to goodness.16

My mother would sometimes laugh and say, “The very fact that Eve was formed second is proof that evolution equals progress.” Or, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught upon founding the Lubavitch Women’s Organization in 1953, the feminine way of conquering the world is not through brute aggression but through “distinctive feminine traits” of modesty and “innerness” which more effectively access power from within. Scripture tells us, “The glory of the king’s daughter is within,”17 and, “G‑d gave more understanding to women than to men.”18

It used to be that it was men commanding women what to wear, think and do. Now it’s women telling women like my mother what to wear, think and value. “But isn’t feminism all about granting autonomy and space for a woman to choose for herself?” my mother would ponder out loud. “When I chose to stop teaching microbiology to focus on raising my children, I was met with horrified gasps and protests from my so-called more liberated peers.” My mother smiled again at the college student. “But isn’t that societal pressure for me to conform in itself a form of oppression?”

He sat there, as still as his untouched chicken soup, his eyes lit up with that look of someone pondering a thing they had never considered before.

I was a teenager at the time, having just a few moons prior been taught by my mother about the “birds and the bees.” So a lot of the conversation, history and cultural references went right over my head. But the image of my mother rhetorically standing up for being a Chassidic feminist in her own way, whether it was popular or not, is a Shabbat memory I will treasure forever.

The poet E. E. Cummings once said, “Write poetry, for God’s sake; it’s the only thing that matters.” For me, it’s Torah that matters, and the Torah of my mother and father that matters most.

So, I don’t mind if people will lambast, contend or say what they will. I will walk in the path of the Torah scholar Rav Yosef ben Chiya, who said upon hearing his mother’s footsteps: “Let me stand before the approach of the Divine Presence.”19