Niddah v. Ronkin: How I was able to Reclaim the Mikveh
What do you do when you get your period? For most of us, the answer is probably: pop a painkiller, put on a period product, and go about our daily lives. The Torah, however, specifically Leviticus chapter 15, has very different ideas about a woman’s life during menstruation. Verses 19-24 outlines clear rules regarding a woman’s purity when she gets her period:
“When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. Anyone who touches her bed will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening. Anyone who touches anything she sits on will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening. If a man has sexual relations with her and her monthly flow touches him, he will be unclean for seven days; any bed he lies on will be unclean.”
These rules are called niddah, or “purity laws,” and they are oppressive towards women. Let’s first unpack the absurdity of these laws. It’s so disheartening to me that our religious text calls something as natural as a woman’s period, “impure.” A period is nothing to be ashamed of, and this text only adds to the stigma surrounding them. Just touching the bed of someone menstruating makes you impure? For real? Sorry future husband! For at least five days a month I guess you’re sleeping on the couch. Oh, and don’t bother sitting on any chairs while you’re on you period because G-d forbid you taint anyone else! This is a natural human function that has been happening since long before the bible was written, and rendering menstruation “impure” requires a lot of nerve considering that the majority of the world does it.
This is why I struggle with the concept of the mikveh. The mikveh is an important part of niddah laws because the purification required after a period is done through immersion in the mikveh. When I was in seventh grade, I went to the mikveh at Mayyim Hayyim before becoming Bat Mitzvah. It was a wonderful and spiritual moment in my religious life. The facility was beautiful, the women who worked there were gracious and calm, and I truly felt connected to Judaism. My experience was even more special because I got to share it with other women who were also there to mark simchas (celebrations): one woman was there because of her wedding that weekend, and another’s baby was being converted to Judaism. Despite the fact that mikveh was born out of niddah, an oppressive system that I don’t believe in, I do believe in the positive and transformative experiences that people can have with them, and that they should exist.
So how does the often oppressive niddah co-exist with my beautiful experience at the mikveh? Is it possible to have honest affirming Jewish moments, like the one I had at the mikveh, while also maintaining feminist sensibilities? I believe this balance is possible, because I believe you can choose what things mean to you. I have always wanted to go the mikveh monthly, not to purify myself after a period, but to feel that peace and connection to G-d that being there brings. I do not feel impure after my period. Mostly I’m relieved that it’s over. However, there are times in my life when I feel spiritually impure. To me the mikveh was an experience that washed away the grime of the day to day, and brought me closer to God and holiness. When I read the purity laws, that is what I choose to take from it. Maybe after a difficult menstrual period, it would be beneficial to gain strength from a beautiful and restorative ceremony.
I have chosen to cast off the negative connotations that can come with mikveh use for purification. I believe that reclamation is very important for Jewish feminists dealing with the oppressive nature of the bible. In my life, the mikveh means spiritual purification that connects me to Judaism or separates something special from daily life. For others, the mikveh is a monthly ritual to clear menstrual impurity. Both of these uses are valid, as long as the person is going to the mikveh for reasons that they believe in, and that are spiritually fulfilling to them personally. It is not easy to reclaim practices that may seem archaic, but through this process I am able to reconcile the sexism in Judaism with my feminist ideals and modern opinions.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.