Tag Archives: ritual immersion

From Isolation to Community: Opening the Conversation on Mikvah

longingTwo 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.”[1]

an angel is bornAnd 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.

mivkeh

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.

let's talkSo 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.


[1] Tehilla Abramov, The Secret of Jewish Femininity, pg. 36

 

Posted on March 18, 2014

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Mikveh Attendants Need Less Legislation and More Education

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.

Mikveh

Increasing numbers of Orthodox women are calling for reform in practices of “interrogation” at the mikveh. What do you think about that? Come to the JOFA Conference where the conversation continues, and have your say!.

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!

 

Posted on November 26, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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