I hope we can all agree that the tragedy of the Freundel case is the harm that was done to the women who came to him to supervise their conversions. There are important secondary consequences of this episode including undermining faith in rabbis and a general cynicism about Orthodox practice. But the primary issue we must grapple with now is how to prevent this from happening again in the future. If this is done right, reestablishing trust in the Orthodox establishment will follow as a matter of course.
When problems occur in my everyday life, I often rely on my experience as a doctor in the search for solutions. How should one respond when mistakes happen? Errors of commission and omission occur all too often in medical practice. In the past, they were considered an unfortunate but unavoidable cost of doing business of making people better. But over the past two decades, with increasing attention to quality of care, there is a growing unwillingness to accept medical error and poor clinical outcomes as an inevitable part of patient care. Root cause analyses are routinely implemented after a bad outcome in an attempt to identify the conditions in the health care delivery system that led to the problem. This, in turn, can lead to the implementation of procedures to prevent errors from happening again and ensuring patient safety.
The looming health problem that dominates the news is the Ebola outbreak. After the first case was diagnosed in Dallas, there was widespread recognition that the hospitals and doctors were unprepared. Mistakes were made on the local and national level and patients and health professionals were harmed as a result. However, physicians and public health officials worked hard to devise better strategies to treat patients, identify exposed individuals at risk of developing Ebola, and draft improved procedures to protect patients, health care providers, and the public. This project is far from over and it is unclear whether the Ebola outbreak will be successfully contained. But as far as I can tell, no one has questioned whether a multi-disciplinary approach with multiple layers of oversight involving doctors, researchers, ethicists, public health officials and others is required to treat patients, reduce population exposure, develop new therapies, define the role of clinical trials, and determine the best utilization of resources. There may not always be harmony but everyone recognizes the need for all stakeholders to be involved in this corrective process if mistakes are to be avoided.
Back to Rabbi Freundel. Women in Washington, D.C. may have been inexcusably victimized. It is impossible to say whether this is a unique event. There is no doubt that the vast majority of rabbis conduct themselves with grace and dignity and serve their communities with devotion, compassion, and impeccable ethics. But sometimes rabbis fail and their congregants are hurt and it is everyone’s mandate to minimize the likelihood of this happening. Just as there is oversight and monitoring of doctors and health professionals to ensure that they provide the best medical care for the most people, congregants have the right to know that there are systems in place to ensure that when they go to their rabbi for guidance, they will get the spiritual help they need and not be damaged in the interaction. Again, we can learn from medicine where abuses by investigators involved in clinical research have been addressed by forming oversight committees with broad membership including representatives from the medical community, the lay public, nurses, social workers, bioethicists and lawyers. Similarly, the oversight of Jewish clergy is likely to be most effective and responsive to the needs of rabbi and congregants if all parties are invited to play a role — men and women, single people and married couples, young and old. None of the communal stakeholders should absent themselves from this process.
Rabbinic oversight is not a referendum on the halakhic practice because that will be something that individuals and communities will decide together with their local rabbi. To claim that oversight will water down halakha or open the door to people who have no role to play, and to withdraw from this process entirely creates a smokescreen behind which abuse of power will continue to occur. This is not a question of gender or solely a matter of sexual abuse. It is a straightforward communal responsibility to ensure that people who approach rabbis for spiritual and professional help are not the senseless victims of harm that could have been prevented.
Rabbis, like doctors, are vested with authority by their congregants. Both are assumed to act in the best interests of those they serve and most rabbis and doctors do. But unfortunately some practitioners fall short. As a consequence, doctors are required to have their credentials reviewed, they must undergo periodic reassessment of their capabilities, and have their actions scrutinized by oversight committees. It is time for similar procedures to be implemented for rabbis. This is not a threat to their autonomy or an attack on their credibility. It is merely a recognition of the profound power they have on the lives of their congregants and their communities– mostly for the good but sometimes, and sadly, for bad.
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There are several things that happen when a stone is thrown into a lake. First, the stone pierces the top layer of the water creating a splash. Second, ripples undulate on the surface. Third, the stone plunges downward until it lands atop the lake’s floor. What is most visible is what occurs on the surface. We are less aware of the layers that the stone cuts under the water; of the muck it disturbs when it hits “rock bottom.” It is the alleged crime, perpetrated against unsuspecting women at Kesher Israel’s mikveh, which has unearthed fears of unchecked religious power.
If the allegations are true, the women who entered the bathroom of the mikveh—the regulars, converts, students—they represent that which is most directly and egregiously violated by the breach. Still, others are stabbed by the deception: the mikveh attendants, congregants, colleagues, family. Even less transparent, however, are the ripple effects that cascade down and out, disturbing unconscious layers of lived experiences.
Fast-forward to Friday night, just ten days after the news broke. I am sitting at Kabbalat Shabbat at the Modern Orthodox synagogue that I attend. I am the only woman there, until one trickles in, then another. I go into Friday night services as many do, with the intention of leaving the week behind and entering a space that extends beyond time. Mincha, led by one of the men in the community, shifts into the beautiful tunes of Kabbalat Shabbat. I close my eyes and sing along. All at once, as the leader begins singing Shiru L’Hashem, five men rush the bima, podium, with undaunted energy. Indeed, it is a beautiful sight: men singing blissfully in harmony together. Nonetheless, it is precisely at this moment, at a time when they likely feel the most connected, that I feel the least connected. In fact, I feel horribly disconnected. Marginalized. A feeling that I am not unused to; one that I have struggled with for the last twenty four years as my husband and I have chosen to raise our selves and our family in a Modern Orthodox community.
Overall, what I cherish about the community outweighs what I grapple with. Raising a family with a commitment to shomer Shabbat observance, particularly in the era of being plugged in 24/7, is a blessing in our life. But, this Shabbat, I feel sucker punched, overwhelmed with a heightened negative emotion that causes me to literally get up and walk out of services.
Was it the experience of watching the physical presence of a group of men– all of whom, by the way, I respect and count as friends—commandeer the space that triggered my reaction? Was it the fact that they and our Orthodox spiritual male leaders can’t possibly know what it is like to have the lived-experience as a woman in an Orthodox synagogue where there are so many things that we are not permitted to do, like join the men in their drum and dance circle, merely because of the fact that we are women? Was it the fact that the mechitza, something that I have mostly come to appreciate over the years, stood there that evening as a symbol of banishment? I’m incredulous: how is it that in the year 2014 I feel so deeply the pangs of second class citizenship?
Why tonight have I found myself having such an unusually strong reaction to observing the men at the bima? After all, this collective step-up to the amud happens with regularity at our synagogue, and, I often find my private way to cope with and move beyond the separation. Why was this week different? Because this week, the allegations were in the back of my mind. Because if true, the act of allegedly secretly videotaping women in the mikveh tramples on a deep public trust, a trust bestowed readily by congregants on their Orthodox rabbinic leaders. Any use of power to bastardize authority at the expense of those most vulnerable represents the deep and dirty muck at the bottom of the lake. Absolute power corrupts. Who is watching the gatekeepers of our halakhot, of our rituals?
Tears welled up in my heart as I instinctively raced out of the room and into the main sanctuary, which thankfully happened to be alight and utterly empty. Bursting into the space on the “men’s side,” I took a seat right behind the bima which stands in the center of the room. My friend, who had followed me out, sat with me and we talked. Two women talked, yet again, about our frustrations secondary to the fact that there are many things women are halakhically permitted to do, but that still aren’t permitted by the Orthodox rabbis. We talked about the lack of standardization of practice in Orthodox communities around the world. We agonized at the disconnect we felt between advances made in our secular lives and the great lag that appears to follow in the Orthodox world.
Our talking, however, did not leave me feeling better. I remained agitated. Affixed in our seats, quietly at first, my friend and I spontaneously began singing Mizmor L’David. I found myself rising up, standing squarely at the bima, she following in tow. We started in on a soulful Lecha Dodi, our voices rising synchronously and spontaneously in volume, in rhythm. We began to pound intuitively on the amud with increasing vigor; to circle the amud just as we have witnessed the men do week after week. We didn’t consciously come into the space to “take back the night,” but, that is what we did instinctively together. Creating a holy space through active participation, through action. In Orthodoxy, part of my “woman-self” comes into synagogue uplifted and comforted by the amazing women around me; but, another part of my “woman-self” is wholly and systematically muted.
If true, the rabbi’s alleged crime highlights a fundamental challenge for Modern Orthodoxy in the twenty first century. To be sure, there are practical problems that require immediate solutions. Women need additional protections to foster safety and trust and to optimize the sacred that must exist in the experience of mikveh. However, there are halakhic matters relevant to Modern Orthodox Judaism that require additional unpacking. There are deep and divisive issues which must be explored openly by the Orthodox community.
When JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, put on their first conference years ago, I remember hearing Blu Greenberg speak in the context of the agunah about the notion that: “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way.” This purported act of total desecration of trust should serve as wake-up call to all those rabbis in positions of power. The time is now. The muck is calling out from the deep. Do the right thing. Express your rabbinic wills.
This week marks the fifteenth anniversary of my conversion to Judaism.
As for so many others, my process of entering into the Orthodox Jewish community was long and arduous. And sadly, like so many others, I became a victim of sexual assault while on the course of my journey. (I mention the assault only because I could not have written this article without reflecting upon that experience.)
My conversion was not a horror story. My attack was not perpetrated by anyone involved in the process. On the contrary, I hold those who assisted in my conversion in the very highest esteem. And to get it out of the way, I am not one of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s alleged victims, though I both studied and worked with him, and painfully, even referred female converts to him.
My personal reflections on the man are beside the point for the moment. My concerns pertain to the integrity of the conversion system in toto: a system in which I have been a participant, a system through which I have guided others, and a system to which I commit my life’s work.
That system is broken.
With the RCA’s formation of a panel to review the current conversion process, we begin the necessary process of examining procedures that have helped numerous candidates, including myself, but failed too many men and women. As one who experienced the vulnerability of conversion, the helplessness of sexual violation, and the satisfaction of guiding others through their journeys to Judaism, I offer some thoughts on how we might want to frame this troubling case.
1) Sexual abuse, including voyeurism, is primarily about power and secondarily about sex.
Accusations of serial abuse during a mysterious initiation ritual make great fodder for news outlets. However, the less titillating, more ubiquitous, and truly urgent problem is the potential for abuses of power by religious courts who perform conversions.
Firstly, If we see Freundel’s alleged voyeurism as a case of power abuse, rather than a case of sexual abuse, we may place it within a long standing pattern of behavior—bullying, threatening, intimidation and self-aggrandizement—some of which was legal, some (perhaps) illegal or unethical, but all of it troubling. In the future, we might be quicker to interrogate a clergy member’s relationship to power and control. We might better train our clergy and laity to identify and interrupt both sexual and non-sexual microagressions. Individuals who habitually cross the bounds of personal space and social propriety are not all sexual offenders, but we must be vigilant.
Secondly, describing Freundel’s alleged transgressions in primarily sexual terms renders the sinner too conveniently “other.” While few among us have been personally accused of sexual misconduct, an uncomfortably large number of us should ask, “What infractions have I committed in my use of power and influence?” and, “When have I turned a blind eye to the abusive behavior of others?” Framing this case as an abuse of power lets fall the barrier between the accused and the accusers, making uncomfortable self-reflection possible.
2) Employ the rhetoric of collective guilt cautiously.
Several articles have made varieties of the “we are all guilty” claim. I sympathize with the sentiment, but urge caution in employing the rhetoric of collective guilt. The last thing any victimized person needs to hear is, “we are all guilty.” For leaders and laity, parsing the issue of blame and responsibility is genuinely nerve-wracking and requires brutal honesty. If overused, the unqualified “we are all guilty” message becomes unhelpful background noise to this difficult meditation.
One of the most terrifying truisms about leadership is that you cannot have guilt in the absence of responsibility and you cannot have responsibility in the absence of power. We can argue about how and why disenfranchisement occurs, but those who are excluded from leadership cannot be blamed to the same extent as those who currently hold authoritative positions. It’s interesting to note how, in this case, the extremes of power and powerlessness in voyeurism correlate with the extremes of power and powerlessness in conversion. These extremes are the crux of the issue. The language we use to describe this case must accurately capture the topography of power. Mapping power dynamics is the first step towards analyzing existing policy and constructing something better in its place.
3) Giving women the “keys to the mikveh” is necessary but not sufficient.
One corollary to the axiom, “power is a prerequisite for guilt” is that putting any person—man or woman—in a position of power unlocks the potential for misuse of that power. It is naïve (and blindly heteronormative) to assume that involving women nullifies the risk of sex scandal or power abuse. Re-framing this incident more broadly will encourage us to seek solutions that go beyond sex and gender.
To be clear: women’s involvement—as permitted by Jewish law– is absolutely necessary. Having women present at the mikveh ceremony, having women formally educate female conversion candidates, or having them serve in the role of ombudspeople are all great suggestions. But, I have two concerns. First, unless women are involved in actually crafting policy, we are paying lip service to their inclusion.
Secondly, plugging women into a broken system won’t fix the system, and I speak here from painful experience. Over the past few years I had the opportunity to shepherd and mentor converts who were working with the Washington, D.C. beit din. Working with Rabbi Freundel, I served as a resource for candidates, teaching them, answering their questions, and facilitating their relationship with the beit din. Sadly, even my direct involvement was not enough to protect the alleged victims.
4) Threats of nullifying existing conversions must end.
A convert pays dearly every time her judges are judged. Why? Because trust—at least, a variety of trust—is elicited in light of shared norms and predicated upon the spoken or unspoken assumption that these norms will remain constant. Once these norms no longer exist, or once they are shown to have never existed, trust is shattered. As a conversion advocate, I chose to work with the RCA rather than with ad hoc batei din largely because I thought their Gerus Protocol and Standards offered the best chance for the candidates broad communal acceptance and minimized the chance that they would be asked to “re-convert.” There is nothing more painful than having to be dragged back underwater because the last time you stood naked in front of judges somehow wasn’t enough.
In my opinion, broad community consensus on matters of personal status serves the best interest of Orthodox converts. In conversions, religious courts act as proxy for the entire community. But when courts become points of contention, their halakhic function and meaning are undercut. I worry that this scandal will completely shatter the consensus built around the essentially helpful Gerus Protocols and Standards. If we are to re-build trust between conversion candidates and the rabbinate, we must find a way to build consensus without consolidating too much power in a small group of rabbinic authorities.
I mark the fifteenth anniversary of my first conversion as a student and teacher of Torah. I am married with two beautiful children. I live in a vibrant Orthodox community. In short, I couldn’t be happier. I have so much more to lose now than I did fifteen years ago. If my conversion were challenged today, I would lose—at least temporarily—my family, my tranquility, my marriage, my identity, and my trust in my community. We are obligated to do everything we can to ensure that no convert ever faces such crippling loss.
We are angry, and we should be. When Freundel was arrested on October 14th, I couldn’t stop watching the story unfold—I’d press refresh on my browser hourly. I’m not at all proud of it, but I felt a deep need to watch Freundel’s downfall from afar, perhaps as payback for the many acts of surreptitious watching he (allegedly) performed. Regardless of the legal outcome, the anger, hurt and distrust sewn by one man will linger…and linger…and linger. The pace of healing is not dictated by the news cycle. But we owe it to converts everywhere to attend to the broken system. It’s time.
I am supposed to go to the mikveh tomorrow night.
The mikveh and I have never been friends; the first time I immersed, before my wedding, I noticed immediately afterwards that I had a tiny hangnail, which according to what I had recently been taught, might invalidate my immersion. Sitting outside in my car, I agonized for an hour, and then called our rabbi, who directed me to re-dunk and repeat my immersion.
Over the nearly twenty years of my marriage, my body has continued to fail to fit neatly into the laws of taharat hamishpacha, or family purity; imperfectly bleeding longer than the textbook five days, problematically spotting between cycles, which necessitated displays of the bloody stains to a rabbi’s knowing eyes for a ruling about my “pure” or “impure” status.I have carefully followed the laws of taharat hamishpacha, which dictate that a married couple must abstain from sexual contact during a woman’s menstrual period, and for the seven following “clean” days. Thereafter, the woman must immerse to become “pure” and sexually available. Spotting between cycles renders a woman’s status questionable, and requires a ruling from a rabbi to clarify her status. According to law and tradition, observing these laws would bring holiness to me, my husband, and our relationship.
As my period lasts a minimum of seven or eight days, and I frequently spot during the seven “clean” days, and throughout the remainder of my cycle, my husband and I must abstain from physical and sexual contact for over two weeks each month. I nearly couldn’t become pregnant with our second child because I repeatedly ovulated before immersion, when sexual intercourse was forbidden. Frequently, mid-cycle spotting prevents us from being intimate.
My supportive, patient husband and I have been fortunate to consult with wise and sympathetic rabbis, who have instructed us to rely on many leniencies, without which we would never have been able to be intimate or to conceive. Nonetheless, I have been told more times than I can count that I needed to see a doctor to evaluate if something was “wrong” with me. Instead of the rabbis accepting my explanation that my body’s behavior was simply “my normal,” they repeatedly advised me that I should endure yet another internal medical exam.
Directed. Instructed. Told. Advised. Endure.
I am over forty. I expect that over the next decade, my cycle will become – if it is possible – even more irregular, and my struggles with taharat hamishpacha will increase before menopause blessedly releases me from my required monthly observance of these laws. The angst I felt over that first tiny hangnail was nothing compared to the exhausting, anxiety-provoking, recurring uncertainty I have experienced upon seeing blood – yet again – on my panty liner. Having to decide, over, and over, and over again “Am I pure? Am I impure? Can we have sex? If we don’t have sex, will my marriage be harmed? If we do have sex, will it be a sin? Should I consult our rabbi again? Should I not?” Every time, no matter what choice I make, I feel guilty, and uncertain, and wrong – impure both physically and spiritually.
Last week’s allegations about Rabbi Barry Freundel brought my anguish and fears about taharat hamishpacha to the fore. The idea that a powerful, authoritative man with decision-making power was watching a disempowered, rule-following woman while she was naked and vulnerable in the mikveh—struck forcefully to the very core of my feelings about my faithful adherence to these laws. As I read the initial news report, a cold descended over me and I began to shake. Throughout my entire marriage, I have felt that there was a metaphorical hidden camera in my bathroom, my bedroom, my body, my soul. I have trembled, trying always to do the indeterminate and elusive right thing, feeling watched by the rabbis who wrote the laws of taharat hamishpacha; by my rabbi, who inspected the stains on my underwear and judged my status; by my fearful, rule-following inner child, yearning to please, terrified of making a mistake; and by God. Now, in black and white, glowing on my iPhone screen, was a report of a rabbi filming a woman doing exactly what she was directed to do, following to the letter the instructions and advice she was given, all in the name of achieving holiness. And yet, despite her faithful obedience, her holiness was stolen from her by the very one who instructed her in its achievement.
For nearly twenty years, rabbis and doctors have probed and prodded, inserted themselves between me and my husband, between me and God, and perhaps worst of all—between me and myself. All these years, I may not have sinned. But achieved holiness? There, I believe, we all have failed.
I am supposed to go to the mikveh tomorrow night.
Vashti is a heroine of the Purim story because she chose not to expose her naked body to the Court despite the King’s requests. Unfortunately, she is put to death because of this. Esther, on the other hand, wins the King’s favor, survives and saves the entire Jewish people! The Purim story seems relevant to an analysis of the Washington D.C. mikvah case and to support the idea that the mikvah should stay open for women to immerse during the day.
When my husband Jeffrey and I first heard about the arrest two weeks ago, we immediately started following the news, recognized the hidden camera device from the mikveh, and decided to go to the Washington D.C. courthouse to report our story to the prosecutors and witness the court proceedings. After we volunteered to speak to the media, our video and story appeared on television and in print. This brought us more fame than ever before. But, according to our local Orthodox rabbi, speaking to the media was not the right thing to do.
Because we publicly spoke out against Rabbi Freundel, and supported the allegations against him, we have been made to feel unwelcome in our Orthodox synagogue. The rabbi specifically told us not to speak about the allegations against Freundel, which he considered to be lashon hara. On Simchat Torah, the synagogue’s founder came over to me and silenced a discussion I was having with my husband, Jeffrey, and the rabbi of a retirement home about the violation. An October 20 statement by the Vaad Hakashrus of Greater Washington illustrates the hostility we feel directed at us. The statement essentially sides with the accused by invalidating testimony made by only one witness. However, my testimony was in addition to six other witnesses documented anonymously by the court. Despite the Vaad’s claim to reach out to potential victims, we have not heard one word of support or assistance from our affiliated synagogue’s rabbi who worked closely with Rabbi Freundel on halakhic matters.
How could we be quiet when leaders of the community seemed to side with a criminal? As the mikvah’s hidden camera likened us to a blindfolded Vashti, our rabbi preferred to be blind and deaf and to ignore our story. We had to leave the hostile environment. In contrast, the rabbi at the Conservative synagogue right next door delivered a supportive message on Shabbat Bereshit.
On Simchat Torah, we are supposed to dance and celebrate with the Torah. But, the Orthodox synagogue added salt to our wounds. No one tried to console us, we were told repeatedly to keep quiet and to try to enjoy the holiday and watch men dance with the Torah. But, ignorance is not bliss. Ignoring this most high-profile case, a hillul hashem, reinforced a problem within the community. Voluntary blindness or brushing warning signs under the rug may be why such a violation could have happened in the first place. The truth is black and white.
The Torah tells us to be God-like, taking guidance from the thirteen Divine attributes. God is all-seeing, but is not a voyeur. God is perfect. May we all learn to make good decisions by acting in God-like ways.
Changing leadership structures and setting up rabbinic oversight committees may remedy the problems of abuse of power, but there should also be changes to the mikvah itself. Typically, Orthodox mikvahs are only open to women at night, ostensibly to preserve the women’s privacy. In light of the recent mikvah violations, women’s privacy cannot be guaranteed in the morning or in the night, so only opening a mikvah at night to protect a woman’s privacy is ridiculous. Daytime hours may better protect women by encouraging them to speak up when something is not right. Daytime hours could remove the stumbling block from the blind.
The Orthodox mikvah is a protected, private place for women and converts. Only a woman’s husband needs to know when she immerses, converts rarely reveal that they converted, and it is halakhically permitted to lie in order to safeguard the privacy of one’s immersion in a mikvah. Encouraging women and converts to hide the powerful experience of immersing in a mikvah and distracting them with the additions of a spa-like atmosphere further encourages them to ignore supposedly minor details such as who else is at the mikvah, who is in charge of the mikvah, and whether there is any impropriety at the mikvah. Now more than ever, we must adapt the culture of secrecy and retreat surrounding the Orthodox mikvah. The mikvah can be a great place to reach higher emotional and spiritual levels, and the evening-only secretive spa-like atmosphere is unnecessary. Simplifying the mikvah and changing the opening hours to be more flexible are just steps in the direction of removing the stigma surrounding the mikvah.
In the Purim story, God is the elephant in the room. This Simchat Torah, the mikvah case was the elephant in the room. While Vashti lost her life and may have made the wrong choice by refusing to do the King’s bidding, both she and Esther acted out of free will. We can choose which mikvah to go to, but also whether to go to any mikvah at all.
Women need to speak up about mikvah, especially since it is one of the three mitzvot directly commanded of women. Women should not be embarrassed or silenced about using the mikvah. It is time to shed light on the mikvah, bring it out of the dark, and open the mikvah during daytime hours.
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.
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!