January 14, 2016
I would go the the mikveh, the ritual bath where Jewish brides prepare themselves for marriage. As the product of a secular upbringing, I had no familiarity with this practice of purification, but had always assumed it was rooted in misogynist principles, in a disgust with female bodily functions. I would have been repelled by the very thought if I hadn’t a pressing reason to appropriate the mikveh, cleansing my own history of its sordid and disappointing relationships, of having most loved the ones who were able to appreciate me least, of having witnessed too many failed or compromised marriages.
My sudden and surprising interest in the mikveh came from marrying an older man who had also had a string of sordid, disappointing relationships, and who—even worse—had had happy ones. It came from the difficulty of believing that it would be possible to commit to a future with someone whose intentions, whose affections, respect and desire I could trust. I needed the mikveh for the same reasons I needed to get married, to differentiate this most beautiful and promising relationship from all the others that had come before.
I made an appointment with a woman teaching a class designed to seduce secular Jews into embracing tradition. With a touch of desperation in my voice, I explained that I had suddenly realized the necessity of going to the mikveh before my wedding. Only afterwards did I ask for clarification about the meaning of the act which had taken on such urgency.
“Does the tradition teach that women’s bodies are dirty?” I asked. She shook her head sadly. “If the point of the mikveh were to cleanse the body,” she asked, “why would we have to bathe before the bath?” She went on to explain that the mikveh personifies both womb and grave. “Impurity” designates no more than the absence of life while “purity” designates life’s potential. By immersing oneself into water from a natural source, a woman humbles herself, submitting to a transformation, signaling a change in her status, and marking the moment when life’s potential is restored.
That all sounded perfect. Transformation was what I was after. This was an act of separation, or havdalah, which creates a distinction between the holy and the mundane. Who knew that the tradition I was born into would supply me with a perfect symbolic system? My marriage would be holy. All that came before would be retrospectively erased. But for a single problem, discovered at the conclusion of our talk, it could not have been more perfect.
The problem was this: there was a little rule about a requisite number of days passing between menses and mikveh. But we had already made a deposit on a wedding site and a jazz band. Invitations had been sent. All this had been done without any thought of such rules. And now it was too late. I was short a few days. My orthodox supporter consulted with the rabbi and came back with the following deal: there had to be no trace of blood.
What constitutes a trace? Is it not, by definition, something barely discernible, which is to say, not discernible to all? Is it not a sign that could be read in this way or that? Is a trace not evidence of former existence? And if it is only a vestige of something that is no more, is it evidence at all? Was Judaism itself not a religion of multiple interpretations, of proliferating commentaries, of endless debate?
Could I bear to betray her? What would be the consequences if I did betray both this kind woman and the rabbi who had tried so hard to accommodate me? Would improper use of the mikveh cause a spiritual contamination? Were there writings on the subject? Would the tradition anticipate that there would be a woman who would want to participate so badly that she was willing to ruin the very thing she was seeking?
The water was warm and inviting. I submerged myself three times. I said the prayers. I prayed to rid myself of our pasts, to clear space for our futures. I bathed in holy waters, sinning in the very moment of my purification.
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