The Torch explores gender and religion in the Jewish community. Named for Deborah the Prophetess, "the woman of torches," the blog highlights the passion and fiery leadership of Jewish feminists, while evoking the powerful image of feminists "passing the torch" to a new generation. Disclaimer: All posts are contributed by third party authors. JOFA does not assume responsibility for the facts and opinions presented in them.
I am two thirds a woman.
There are only three mitzvot uniquely, singularly, and expressly for women, making up the acronym CHaNaH: Challah, representing the mitzvah of separating the challah and by extension keeping a kosher home, Niddah, representing the laws of mikveh (ritual immersion) and family purity, and Hadlakot HaNeirot, kindling the Shabbat candles. As an observant Jew, I keep a kosher home and light Shabbat candles every week, but as a woman in a relationship with another woman — and as such, single in the eyes of halakha (Jewish law) — I am not bound by, nor do I have a channel to engage with the third: mikveh.
My former roommate, Rivkah, was the first of our seminary class to marry; the first to have kids; the first to make a bris for her son; and the first to host Shabbat meals in her own home with a perfectly styled wig on her head and a black-hatted, bearded husband by her side. One by one, most of my classmates joined the ranks of married women — huddling together at celebrations and community events, comparing wig brands, Shabbat recipes, day cares, and other concerns of married women raising children in Jewish Brooklyn. Rivkah guided many of them through the transition from single girl to married woman, a transition marked by the study of laws relating to mikveh, the first immersion, the donning of a head covering after the wedding, and a communal celebration of the new relationship.
At seven months, my partner and I have been together longer than most of my seminary classmates knew their husbands before standing under the chuppah, wedding canopy. When we started dating, there was no formality — no matchmaker nudging us on, no family calling references to assess compatibility, no rabbis advising us as to the acceptability of the match, no laws or customs guiding our courtship, and no kallah teacher instructing us as to when and how our bodies should fit together — all of the hallmarks of Orthodox dating were missing. Without the boundaries of shomer negiah to keep us from touching — and more importantly no ketubah (marriage contract) to permit us to each other at a later date — my partner and I fell into a easy physical intimacy without the rhythm of niddah and ritual of mikveh.
I love my partner, and I love touching her, but I can’t help but feel that every time I take the luxury of embracing her when I’m in niddah (or when she is), that I’m cheating somehow — that I’m cheating on what Jewish women do in relationships. In essence, I feel like only two thirds of an observant Jewish woman. I miss out on the female experience of being observant by virtue of the fact that I don’t have the same religious obligation to mikveh. I am an outsider in my Orthodox community because I can’t share what is considered to be an essentially female rite of passage; I can’t join my hetero-partnered peers in the female space of the mikveh.
These feelings of loss and exclusion have led me to seek out a mikveh under more openminded auspices. I am hopeful that I will soon have the opportunity to practice a ritual thus far denied to me by virtue of my queerness. The possibility of actually being able to engage in this ritual raises another question: do I want to? Am I fabricating laws for myself to follow because I feel like there’s a hole in my Jewish observance? Should I content myself with the benefits of invisibility within Jewish law? These are questions that a woman married to a man never has to ask herself, but I do.
Maia Campbell is a member of the Eshel community. Eshel is an organization that strives to create community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities.
Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: RIV-kuh, Origin: Hebrew, the biblical character Rebecca.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.