Five months ago, I wrote about my struggles as a newly married woman in adjusting to the observance of Taharat HaMishpacha, the laws of family purity. I felt isolated in my suffering and scared that my commitment to halakha would forever negatively impact my marriage. I had been taught that Taharat HaMishpacha keeps a marriage fresh and alive. Rabbi Meir attested to this in the Talmud, “Why did the Torah teach that a woman was in a period of niddah, menstrual impurity, for seven days?…So that she will be beloved by her husband as on the day she entered the chuppah, wedding canopy” (Niddah 31b). But observing the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha was not a honeymoon for my relationship, and I was searching for someone to tell me that I was not alone in my frustration. I needed community and solidarity.
I watched eagerly as the conversation about my article spread on social media. While some critiqued my frustration and argued that halakhic challenges are simply a part of Avodat Hashem, service of God, many women reached out to me to express their solidarity and sympathy with my challenges. It was clear that I was not alone and that women needed a space to discuss this mitzvah openly and honestly.
Since moving to New York City last fall, I have met many female, halakhic scholars–mentors that I did not have access to when I initially learned the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha on the West Coast. I began asking them about strategies to cope with the challenging aspects of Taharat HaMishpacha and how to guide a follow-up discussion that would move beyond frustration towards constructive action. While the women I spoke to offered solidarity and sympathy, no one had an answer. Most offered a few ideas and then concluded, “You just learn to deal with it.”
That answer was not satisfying. Getting married is enough of a new challenge: learning to live with someone, navigating a new sexual relationship, merging identities. Yet, at the same time we are introduced to a new set of mitzvot that impacts your body, sexuality, and emotional relationship. And if women ever choose to speak openly about these intimate challenges, the only support offered is that it will get easier. But we deserve better. No new bride should ever have to feel isolated and scared because of the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha. Our community needs to collectively strategize on ways to offer support to couples.
With this guiding principle, I facilitated a series of discussion groups, in collaboration with Immerse NYC, which brought together women in Washington Heights to share their experiences of observing Taharat HaMishpacha. These discussions provided space to both vent frustrations and clearly identify the challenges to address.
At one salon, a woman asked if my husband was home and when I responded no, she sighed in relief and pulled off her sheitl, wig. Women around the living room followed suit, pulling off sheitls, tichels, scarves, and hats, a collective shedding of our inhibitions. This was a safe space to open up and be in solidarity as women.
During these discussions, members of the group openly discussed each person’s difficulties and offered suggestions to one another. As each woman shared, heads nodded around the room and women jumped in to respond. I found myself feeling more at ease with my challenges. There was a sense of solidarity in our commitment to this mitzvah and yet, an honest acknowledgement that while observing other mitzvot may be difficult at times, this mitzvah has a particularly sensitive impact as it affects one’s body, marriage, and sexual life. There is a lot of constructive power in a room full of women. While no one walked away with every problem solved, I noticed a lighter energy as women left. We were on the way towards a more positive relationship with this mitzvah.
Our community needs to consciously and consistently support these conversations. While I am fortunate to live in a vibrant, Jewish neighborhood, women all over this country do not have access to this support. My hope is that we can expand this experience beyond Manhattan so that every woman has a place to turn to and a network to support her as she begins this new mitzvah, or as her practice evolves throughout her life. Every marriage deserves to start with all the resources available for success. Talking about the non-halakhic aspects of Taharat HaMishpacha should be another part of the healthy marriage toolkit.
If you are interested in bringing this curriculum to your community, please contact Sasha Kesler at SashaDKesler@gmail.com.
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What can happen when we take mikvah out of the realm of the hidden, and bring it into a space where we can engage in an open, honest, safe dialogue? What can exist when we are able to share our feelings around mikvah, and the laws and rituals that surround it, without the fear of being judged or stigmatized? What is created when we can ask questions about subjects that are usually deemed too personal or too embarrassing to discuss with others?
In my experience, the product is a space like no other. A space in which men and women can feel supported and affirmed, while making themselves open and vulnerable, and, as a result, re-explore and re-evaluate their mikvah practices—and, by extension, potentially their niddah (the laws relating to sex and menstruation) practices, sexual practices, and intimate relationships.
This past December, I had the incredible privilege to lead a session at the 8th International JOFA Conference with Sarah Mulhern which sought to answer the questions listed above. The session, entitled “No More Whispers,” used anonymous polling technology to allow the participants to respond to questions via text message and watch the answers appear instantaneously on the screen. This technology allowed a large group of people to participate in a single discussion while also respecting the sensitive nature of the subject. To quote Sarah: “Just because I won’t tell you when I am going to the mikvah or who I see there doesn’t mean I cannot tell you about my experiences and feelings around it.”
By the end of the session, it was apparent to those of us in the room that the power of the space, and the desire for the discussion, extended far beyond those of us participating in that particular discussion. Using the anonymous polling software, we asked everyone if they were comfortable having their (anonymous) responses shared with the broader public, and the answer was a unanimous yes.
More so than any commentary I can overlay, some excerpts from the discussion speak for themselves:
“The mikveh lady is small, with terrible posture and is wearing a snood. She has seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of bodies. Her job is to get them all this mitzvah, and while she’s at it, to hold all the secrets of our bodies. She’s maybe the most powerful woman in this neighborhood.”
What burning topic/question related to mikvah have you never felt comfortable discussing publicly?
We will be continuing this conversation via webinar on Wednesday night, July 9th at 8 pm EDT. To join us, register for MikvahChat: An Open, Honest, Anonymous, Online Conversation About Mikvah, Niddah, and Sex.
There have been numerous conversations recently about mikveh, tzniut, niddah, and sexual relationships within the Orthodox community. They have spanned the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about time that we’re having these conversations, because these are really important and central issues that have an enormous impact on our lives. And when issues of personal status, ritual, and belief systems are hard to talk about, they tend to get swept under the rug or ignored. And when people feel ambivalent about halakha, they often feel a terrible sense of shame.
Two years ago, Mayyim Hayyim asked me to write a blog about sex and the mikveh. Now might be a good time to revisit the issue of when halakha becomes a smoke screen to hide sexual problems. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.
I’m a medical sex therapist. I see dozens of women each week who are struggling with their sex lives. The struggles don’t differ much between the women in the Jewish community and other communities. But I am constantly struck by the role that the mikveh (and the laws surrounding its use) plays in the observant Jewish woman’s personal struggle, how it both effects and is affected by the quality of the sexual relationship.
Continue reading “When the Mikveh Feels Overwhelming” at Mayyim Hayyim’s blog, The Mikveh Lady Has Left The Building.
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Two weeks each month, I refrain from physical intimacy with my husband because of Jewish law. It is not only difficult because I miss his touch. I feel overwhelmed that my body’s natural rhythms have placed a distance in our marriage. For me, the practice of taharat ha-mishpacha is an emotionally draining and frustrating experience.
According to traditional interpretations, taharat ha-mishpacha (family purity) requires a couple to abstain from all physical intimacy and touch, and imposes various other restrictions including not sharing a bed. This period of abstinence lasts twelve or more days: while the woman is menstruating (a minimum of five days) and for seven additional days. It concludes when the woman fully cleanses herself, and immerses in a mikvah (ritual bath). A woman is called a niddah while in this state of separation.
I got married six months ago and was so excited to observe this mitzvah. Every inspirational book I read told me that taharat ha-mishpacha is the key to maintaining a happy relationship. They explained that niddah is not meant to imply that I am dirty while menstruating; rather, the separation should build intimacy in our relationship through improved communication and non-physical expressions of affection. “Taharat HaMishpacha is the secret to Jewish femininity….showing them [husband and wife] how to relate to each other and express and build their happiness and devotion.”
And yet, I feel cheated. I struggle to find the magic in performing a bedikah (the internal examination to check for blood). The woman who taught me the laws said “an angel is born every time a woman does a bedikah.” But when I do it, I am always anxious that, God forbid, at the end of our separation, I’ll find a blood spot that will prolong it yet another day. I feel ashamed and stressed that my body’s natural cycle often does not cooperate with Jewish law and I have to wait yet another day to be with my husband.
I was taught that going to the mikvah is the best private retreat a busy woman could have – time away from the world to focus only on myself. But frankly, I find it inconvenient that I need to change my plans to take a bath. Recently, I was so sick that I could not get out of bed yet I was supposed to go to the mikvah. Delaying mikvah night is considered a terrible sin but I had no physical energy to go. I felt guilt-ridden that I was delaying our limited time available for intimacy. While my husband insisted I stay home, my emotions about my relationship have become so intimately tied with this mitzvah that I felt depressed nonetheless. I count the days when we can be together and I count them when we are apart. Every moment feels precious and the opportunity for intimacy must be a priority even when we are exhausted after a long day.
We are told that mikvah is a private matter. One should not discuss her niddah practice or mikvah night. Rori Picker Neiss and Sarah Mulhern, students at Yeshivat Maharat and Hebrew College respectively, facilitated a session at the JOFA Conference dedicated to opening up the conversation about mikvah. The discussion was aided by an anonymous live-polling tool. Prompted by quotes and pictures, we submitted, via text message, our reflections on all things mikvah. There, I realized I am not alone in my anxiety, sadness, and frustration. Participants were both deeply committed to halacha and tremendously dissatisfied with the practice.
For now I am starting to find solace in the shared experiences of my friends. I am not alone in my feelings. I know many people may wonder why I do not just give up on niddah. But ending my practice of taharat mishpacha would fundamentally shift my sense of self. I am an Orthodox Jewish woman and that means I take the good with the less than pleasant. I believe in the halakahic system, and niddah is a central aspect of my observance.
Judaism is based in communal experience and not meant to be practiced in isolation. Our prayer services require community, our food is certified as kosher by other Jews, and Shabbat is best experienced with large, joyous meals. We are not just a religion; we are a community. And yet the mitzvah that dictates one of the most fundamental aspects of human behavior is meant to be kept a secret. There is no community experience in the practice of niddah.
So here is my appeal: let’s talk about it. We are a religion of partnership, so let’s bring community back into the practice of taharat ha-mishpacha. The laws may not change but at least we can experience the joys and sorrows together through conversation and community.
 Tehilla Abramov, The Secret of Jewish Femininity, pg. 36
Earlier this month, Hadassah Braun Margolese wrote a blog here at The Torch describing her anguish about not being able to immerse in the mikveh, the ritual bath, alone. As a result of Hadassah’s struggle, MK Aliza Lavie proposed a Knesset bill to rectify this situation. Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet, a leading activist in the area of mikveh reform, responds below to these series of events and offers a glimpse into the experiences of immersing women.
MK Aliza Lavie and ITIM have put forward a bill in the Knesset that will make it illegal for mikveh attendants to question women about their religious practice. Let me describe where this is coming from.
Last week we held a lecture at The Eden Center. Afterward someone mentioned the bill, and a few women instantly responded with stories from the last month — of attendants asking when and how many bedikot (internal checks to assure there is no bleeding) the woman did, and whether a woman had done a hefsek (internal exam which officially marks the end of bleeding) (the attendant claimed that she can’t say “Kasher” if the woman hasn’t done these because she will get Divine retribution for wrongly sanctioning the immersion); a woman was asked if her freckles are make up or permanent – and the attendant tried to rub them off; and another questioned about her choice of birth control and interrogated regarding whether she had taken out the NuvaRing or not. Unfortunately, among the 850 officially employed mikveh ladies in the country, not all are sensitive to how these things might offend, and where they overstep the woman’s personal authority. Many attendants feel that it is their responsibility, rather than a woman’s, to decide what is appropriate — and can refuse entry because of a woman’s personal status or the psak she chooses to follow.
From the discussion in the Knesset (which I attended), the bill is intended to prevent attendants from being able to turn someone away (it’s a public institution in Israel), and from asking questions like if/when she did a hefsek, her marital status, and more, which are insensitive or intrusive.
The proposed legislation is welcome, but unless it is accompanied by a deep educational process I fear it will be met with resistance from the mikveh attendants, who will likely see it as an attempt by a secular government to intrude in their holy work. Legislation cannot make people more sensitive; education can, and education can also help them to understand the underpinnings of this law. The mikveh attendants need to understand that the bill is not a threat nor an attack of their Avodat Kodesh (holy work), but rather an attempt to respect the privacy and dignity of thousands of women who come to the mikveh with different priorities, yet consider their immersion as vitally important in their lives.
A little background might be helpful. Most of the mikveh attendants are Haredi. They grew up in an educational system which devalues personal autonomy and places ultimate value on strict adherence to authority. Their own self-perception as well as their perception of their roles in the mikveh and vis-à-vis the women who enter are often dramatically different from those whom they are paid to service. Education can help them to be made aware of the feelings and sensitivities of the other side, whose concerns are so far from their own that they just don’t relate to these things as a problem. (I believe that it is the awareness of the complexity of this problem and respect for the difficult work attendants do which prompted MK Lavie and Itim to phrase the bill in a way that calls to task the rabbis who oversee the mikveh, and not the attendants themselves).
Education can also help to begin the process of transforming the concept of a mikveh attendant from a halakhic gatekeeper to someone who facilitates a woman’s experience. More than that, attendants have the rare opportunity to witness (and, as appropriate, extend a hand) to things that would otherwise go unnoticed – whether signs of abuse, a growth on a woman’s back, or fertility challenges and miscarriage.
An education program like this already exists and has been implemented in a number of locales for the mikveh attendants, with great success. The Eden Center has developed a course which has been extremely successful in extending that kind of sensitivity. Attendants learn skills of communication and become very aware of different needs, learning to accept women from across the religious spectrum. At the same time, we give the attendants general knowledge and tools for identifying abuse and domestic violence, postpartum depression, breast health and infertility, as well as issues of physical, emotional and sexual health, so they can be community resources. We also point out that while some women love being asked a checklist of items re: preparation, others just want to be left alone to do their own thing. And through the program, we have seen incredible change. When we explain the complexity of feelings that come from a range of women and different life situations, they begin to understand their piece in making all women feel comfortable and respected in this most precious institution.
We hope to bring this program to communities throughout Israel– and even to the Diaspora — because we see how effective it has been in helping women in need get sensitive assistance, and helping attendants understand their job in completely new ways.
The conversation about mikveh reform will continue at the 8th International JOFA Conference, December 7-8 at John Jay College. Sign up today!
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