I have two issues with the title of this blog post. For one thing, I should not have to ask permission from anyone for the right to immerse in the mikveh, the ritual bath, alone. Second, Rabbi? Shouldn’t a woman be the supervisor of a women’s mikveh? If I have a question regarding the mikveh, why should I have to turn to a man to plead my case?
There is a deeper issue here. Why should I have to plead my case at all? It is ridiculous that I need permission to immerse alone. Yet, this is how it is many mikvaot: without permission, the attendant will not allow me into the mikveh waters. Immersion in the ritual bath is an important mitzvah for me. But that’s precisely what it is: a mitzvah for me. This mitzvah is not for the rabbi, or the mikveh attendant. If I would like to immerse on my own, I should be able to, without questions, or strange facial expressions in response.
Even more baffling is where these rules come from. In certain communities, women are not allowed to immerse alone without the rabbi’s permission, but in other places in Israel, women are allowed to immerse on their own, no questions asked. How does that work? Who decides where and when women can be trusted on their own and when they cannot?
This entire question of immersing alone exacerbates for me what is already a challenging practice. For nearly 11 years, I have disliked going to the mikveh — in fact, I have dreaded it. Sometimes, the attendant has made it worse, such as once when the attendant asked me to dunk over twenty times, constantly changing positions. Or when I was told that I have to remove makeup from under my eyes when I was just tired. Or just the visceral experience of being watched as I walk in and out of the water. No matter how many times I am told that the attendants are not “really” looking at us, I cannot get past a profound discomfort. Even when mikveh attendants are nice, I don’t want them in the room with me when I immerse. I am just not comfortable having another person in the room with me when I am undressed.
The entire day of the immersion I am worried about who the mikveh attendant will be. Will she ask me questions? Will she insist on having me use bleach to remove stains from my nails? Will she insist that I still have make-up on? Will I have to cut my nails shorter? Will she look at me when I walk up and down the stairs, or will she only watch me once I am in the water?
Yes, the mikveh attendants are mostly nice. But even when they are “nice”, the experience is still incredibly uncomfortable and unsettling for me. All I am asking for is for the right to perform this mitzvah on my own, as I wish, without being watched as I am naked and vulnerable and having a private moment. This is my mitzvah and nobody else’s, and yet I have not been allowed to own it.
This changed when I discovered a mikveh where women are allowed to immerse alone. I found it on Facebook in a group called Advot, which is a round-table of women trying to make changes in mikveh practices in Israel. When someone in the group posted photos of the mikveh in her town. I replied that I would be happy to go to that mikveh if I could immerse alone. That night, I took a three hour drive for the experience of being able to immerse alone, to make the ritual and the body experience mine and only mine.
The desire to immerse without being observed by an attendant should be respected in the mikveh. Women should have the right to make that decision for ourselves, without having to beg a rabbi or anyone else.
I will be joining a conference organized by Advot on November 13 in Israel on the subject of women’s experiences of mikveh, so that we can speak about what needs to change. Let’s all talk about. It’s the only way to make the change.
The upcoming 8th International JOFA Conference will be highlighting new approaches to mikveh, with Rori Picker Neiss and Sarah Mulhern. Join us at John Jay College, December 7-8, for this memorable and important event. For more information go to http://jofa2013.sched.org