I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about niddah, or the laws having to do with a women’s monthly immersion in the mikveh (this is what happens when you run a Jewish blog---you read a lot of random things). I am no expert on this issue---far from it---but I think it’s a really interesting topic, and something that more women should be aware of, especially in light of the battle over mikvaot that is going on in some communities in Israel right now. So here are the basic, traditional rules: a woman is supposed to abstain from sex and any physical contact throughout her period and for seven days after, until she has immersed herself in a mikveh. The reason for the immersion is so that she will no longer be tameh, which is loosely translated as “impure,” but that many believe is really meant to convey a lack of wholeness without the heavy negative connotations of impurity. In addition, the mikveh is, traditionally, intended for married women.
The mikveh presents many challenges for a woman living in the modern world, even among more traditional communities. First, the issue of whether or not an unmarried woman can go to the mikveh—what do observant women do who are having sex outside of marriage? In an article on The Sisterhood on the issue, Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz, a Conservative Rabbi in Israel, estimates that approximately one third of Orthodox women who are having sex outside of marriage use the mikveh each month. However, In Israel, there are many times when women who are not married are barred from using a mikveh. So what should such women do?
In a responsum on the issue, Rabbi Susan Grossman, chair of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards’ Subcommittee on Family, Gender and Human Sexuality, writes:
“Although not traditionally obligated by Jewish law and tradition (indeed, at one time, not having immersed in a mikveh was considered a sufficient deterrent to premarital relations),such women should not be stigmatized nor made uncomfortable if they would like to utilize the mikveh for such observances. Single women have pointed out that at times they feel the tradition excludes them and punishes them for something over which they have no control. Some single women could use the mikveh as an opportunity to pray that God will send them their bershert, their intended. Others could experience immersion as an opportunity to feel good about themselves within the context of their Judaism.”
She suggests that the tradition of mikveh should be expanded to include a wider range of people, even unmarried women, thereby allowing more women to take advantage of what is considered by many to be a profound and enriching spiritual experience. In line with this idea is the mission of Mayyim Hayyim, a kosher mikveh in Massachusetts, which, among other things, declares that its mission is to “Provide a welcoming, beautiful place for both traditional and creative mikveh uses.” It is a pluralistic mikveh, welcoming of Jews (and converts and their families) of all types. Personally, I find what they have created to be beautiful---an amazing way to expand mikveh use to a larger audience.
Another issue arises from the practice of keeping twelve days of separation from one's husband. Rabbi Grossman’s responsum also talks about how many Conservative women are increasingly only keeping the laws of niddah through the actual menstruation period, without the seven extra days. She discusses how the realities of modern life make it difficult for couples to find time to be intimate, and how the difference between seven or twelve days of abstinence can really affect a couple’s relationship, and whether or not they will even attempt to try to follow the laws of niddah. Essentially, she describes the extra seven days as burdensome.
Now, I have no personal experience with mikveh, but from what I have heard it is a beautiful experience, not something that should be a burden. The only experience I have with mikvaot is learning about them when I was in ninth grade, taking a trip to an actual mikveh with my class, and being somewhat in awe of the strange, and somewhat invigorating aura that surrounds the mikveh. Personally, I find the idea of feeling somewhat less whole during one’s period and then having water restore you to a sense of wholeness to be really cool. But that same day, I remember talking to my friends about it and being told that “no one” really goes to the mikveh because so many other laws are attached to it. That was disheartening to hear -- who wants their mikveh dreams killed so early?
From my readings, and from what I have seen from the Mikveh Project, a photographic account of various women’s experience with mikvaot, there is a lot to be gained from the experience of ritual immersion. Exactly how to include more women into that ritual is still unclear---perhaps shortening the length of abstinence to simply the period of menstruation, or getting rid of some of the restrictions and stigmas having to do with who can immerse in a mikveh. Perhaps if mikveh were not necessarily only for women who are willing to adhere to all of the laws of niddah, then more women would be interested in going to a mikveh, and would be able to benefit from a potentially profound spiritual experience there.