The mikveh, or ritual bath, derived from ancient notions of purity and impurity. While the need for women to purify themselves after menstruation or childbirth was connected to ancient blood taboos, it remained a regular part of Jewish practice for centuries. In modern times, the practice of ritual immersion has been rejected by some as patriarchal and oppressive, but at the same time it has also been reinvented by diverse groups of Jews to be more inclusive and to meet contemporary religious needs and desires.
The mikveh is a ritual bath designed for the Jewish rite of purification. The mikveh is not merely a pool of water; it must be composed of stationary, not flowing, waters and must contain a certain percentage of water derived from a natural source, such as a lake, an ocean, or rain. Ritual purification in a mikveh is used for a wide range of purposes, including conversion and burial ceremonies. Individuals might immerse themselves in the mikveh before weddings or before the holiday of Yom Kippur, and even pots and pans can be immersed to make them kosher. Traditionally, men and women have used the mikveh for ritual purification, but it has always held special significance for Jewish women. Jewish law prescribes that women immerse themselves in the waters of the mikveh following their menstrual periods or after childbirth in order to become ritually pure and permitted to resume sexual activity. The observance of this ritual has declined in modern times, but it still remains a key element in Jewish ritual practice. In the United States, where most Jewish women have not observed the laws of menstrual purity, the mikveh continues to be an important institution of Jewish life.
While the rabbis did explore sexes beyond the binary of male and female in the context of family purity and the mikveh, their laws primarily focused on men and women and their respective duties and obligations. The uses and interpretations of the mikveh have evolved and become more inclusive to Jews of all genders in many communities, changing along with the sensibilities of contemporary Jews.
History and Law
Before the destruction of the Temple, when ritual purity was intimately connected with the Land of Israel and Temple practices, the laws of purity and impurity (tumah and taharah) were much more far-reaching than in contemporary times. Ritual impurity might result from contact with the dead, loss of menstrual blood, loss of semen through nocturnal emission, or leprosy. Immersion in the waters of the mikveh provided a means of transforming an individual from a state of ritual impurity to a state of purity. After the Destruction of the Temple, the rabbis curtailed most of the laws of purity but elaborated those laws applying to women and menstruation. The laws of niddah, which determine the ritual status of a menstruating woman and the prescriptions for her sexual behavior, derive from biblical prohibitions regarding contact with a menstruant. The book of Leviticus declared that a woman would be ritually impure for seven days during her menstrual flow, during which time sexual contact was forbidden. The rabbis increased the period of sexual separation to twelve days, prescribing five days minimum for the menstrual flow and seven “clean” days afterward. Following that twelve-day period, the niddah, the menstruating woman, would immerse herself in the mikveh and then be permitted to resume sexual activity. Within the corpus of Jewish law, the observance of niddah is one of the three key mitzvot (commandments) incumbent upon Jewish women.
Women’s state of impurity during their menstrual periods is not a matter of hygienic cleanliness but rather a legal definition of ritual purity. Nevertheless, the laws of niddah reflect primitive blood taboos and the sense of fear and danger surrounding menstruation. Moreover, the rabbis interpreted the laws of niddah within a broader framework known as taharat hamishpahah, the laws of family purity. As the term implies, Jewish law transformed women’s observance of niddah into a duty that affected the entire family. Safeguarding the purity of other family members as well as regulating sexual behavior thus became primarily the responsibility of Jewish women. Jewish literature is filled with threats of punishment for intercourse during niddah, including assertions that children conceived during menstruation might be born with serious health impairments.
These laws were considered so critical that a Jewish community with limited resources was directed by the Talmud to prioritize the construction of a mikveh over that of a synagogue. The archeological excavations of Masada [link to new entry on Masada] demonstrate that even while under siege by the Romans in a place where water was scarce, the Jews built mikvehs. Two mikvehs were found, each to the exact specifications mandated by halakhah.
In the modern period, Jews have reinterpreted and reassessed the laws of niddah. While some Reformers called for the abolition of such practices as backward and superstitious, modern Orthodox leaders, such as Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), extolled the virtues of periodic sexual abstinence as a means of moral and spiritual elevation. The personal and private nature of adherence to the laws of family purity makes it particularly difficult to determine accurately how many Jews continued to observe the practice. However, evidence suggests that Jewish women in the modern period gradually left behind the traditional regulations of niddah.
Jewish immigrants to the United States appeared to have largely abandoned the practice of niddah, but many communities in America continued to construct mikvehs. As early as 1759 in New York and 1784 in Philadelphia, small Jewish communities began building mikvehs, imploring local Jews not to neglect the laws of family purity. Throughout the nineteenth century, several congregations throughout America made the building of a mikveh a priority, indicating that communal leaders wanted to encourage the practice of niddah and at least some women continued to observe family purity. In the early twentieth century, New York’s Lower East Side housed over thirty ritual baths, some sponsored by synagogues and others independently owned. Yet, despite the continuing existence of mikvehs in America, Jewish leaders consistently lamented women’s indifference to the laws of ritual purity and seemed to be addressing a population in which most Jews had ceased to observe the practice.
While niddah remained one of the least observed Jewish rituals, Jewish leaders continued to publish prescriptive literature urging women to return to the traditional practice of ritual purity. In a modern American context, defenses of family purity shifted from an emphasis upon adherence to Jewish law to a new interest in the medical and hygienic benefits of niddah. Particularly during the first decades of the twentieth century, during the heyday of scientific positivism and eugenics, Jewish authors relied upon the findings of an emerging scientific literature, claiming that sexual abstinence during a woman’s menstrual flow decreased rates of cancer and contributed to the overall health of the Jewish people. Armed with medical evidence indicating lower rates of cancer among Jewish women and supporting the purportedly unique capabilities of the mikveh to dispel menstrual toxins, Jewish commentators argued that observance of niddah was a modern, scientifically sound practice. Leo Jung (1892–1987), a modern Orthodox rabbi who argued that traditional practices harmonized perfectly with progressive social ideals, authored a guide to “the Jewish way to married happiness,” in which he reformulated the laws of family purity as “proto-feminist” and capable of enhancing emotional and conjugal bonds. While such defenses never succeeded in convincing the majority of Jewish women to embrace traditional Jewish practice, they do reflect the ways that niddah and mikveh were reinterpreted in accordance with modern scientific culture. The supposed health benefits remain a part of contemporary Jewish discourse about niddah, but they generally receive much more limited attention, as a fringe benefit of family purity, not its primary intent or result.
The emergence of Jewish feminism in the 1970s sparked new debates about and reinterpretations of the laws of family purity and the use of the mikveh. Some Jewish feminists urged women to cast off the restrictions imposed by Jewish law and its emphasis on women’s biologic functions, but others reclaimed the practice of niddah as a feminist ritual, arguing that periods of sexual abstinence enhanced the companionate bond in marriage and that the practice of niddah celebrated the cycle of the female body. In the early 1970s, theologian Rachel Adler, then a practicing Orthodox Jew, published an influential article claiming that purity and impurity applied to women and men alike and insisting that women could practice immersion in the mikveh as part of a sacred cycle. In the late 1990s, after embracing Reform Judaism, Adler renounced her previous position, and instead maintained that the laws of niddah reflected a “slave theology” that furthered the oppression of women in Jewish culture. While some Jewish feminists continue to reject family purity laws, others have embraced niddah as a vehicle for spiritual renewal.
Reimagining the meaning of mikveh rituals has meant creating new prayers to accompany traditional immersion. It has also involved employing the mikveh to mark previously unrecognized major lifecycle events, both positive and negative, including birth, death, marriage, and divorce. The mikveh has become a source for physical and emotional healing, e.g., after a miscarriage or abortion, while undergoing fertility or cancer treatments, or to help in the recovery from rape or sexual abuse.
Contemporary reinventions of the mikveh have focused on making the experience of mikvah more inclusive and expansive. In 2001, journalist and writer Anita Diamant founded Mayyim Hayyim (Living Waters), which describes itself as “a resource for learning, spiritual discovery, and creativity.” Mayyim Hayyim is a pluralistic mikveh that welcomes people of all genders and abilities, provides spaces for the celebration of lifecycle events and conversions, and offers its services to survivors of trauma and those seeking to experience the ritual of mikveh in their own way. Located in Newton, Massachusetts, the institution opened its doors in 2004 and features educational and consulting programs as well as an art gallery. Another pluralistic and inclusive mikveh, ImmerseNYC, was first envisioned by Reform Rabbi Sara Luria in 2012 and operates out of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. More recently, artist Rebecca Erev and other radical, queer artists in Olympia, Washington, launched the Queer Mikveh Project, which is simultaneously a community, an art project, and a tool for advocacy. While the traditional mikveh prescribed purity rituals in binary gendered terms—for men and women—several 21st-century efforts focus on inclusivity and welcoming people of diverse genders, ethnicities, races, and practices. Pluralistic community mikvehs now exist in several cities, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.
Artists have increasingly focused on the mikveh experience in their work, some interpreting it as an oppressive and patriarchal element of traditional Judaism, others reframing it as a celebration of femininity and feminist principles. Mierele Laderman Ukeles installed a full-size ritual bath called “Mikveh: Place of Kissing Waters” for a 1986 show at the Jewish Museum; Na’amah Batya Lewin explored her ambivalence about the mikveh in her 1998 film “Cycle: The Mikveh,” and Helène Aylon created “My Bridal Chamber” in 2001, part of her ongoing artistic exploration of the place of women in traditional text and ritual. Israeli filmmaker Anat Zuria’s documentary “Tehorah” (Purity) received the 2002 Mayor Award for Best Documentary Film at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. In 2001, photographer Janice Rubin and writer Leah Lax premiered the “The Mikvah Project,” an exhibition that portrays close-up but faceless photographs of women immersing in the mikveh in a variety of circumstances, ranging from a heterosexual woman’s monthly visit to a ritualistic declaration of lesbian identity. The photos are accompanied by quotations from the women, expressing the personal effects of integrating immersion into their spiritual lives. The published volume from the exhibition captures a diversity of emotions about the mikveh, ranging from anger to ambivalence to deep spiritual connection. In 2015, Josh Azouz’s play “The Mikvah Project” premiered in London, narrating the story of homosexual desire between two men who meet each Friday night at the traditional Jewish ritual bath.
Although the observance of niddah and regular attendance at the mikveh remain minority practices among contemporary Jews of all genders, the meaning of this centuries-old Jewish ritual continues to evolve and to be reimagined and reinvented to suit the needs of contemporary Jews.
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