Mikvah Becomes Mainstream?

The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (an organization of Conservative rabbis), has been spending a lot of time on difficult questions stemming mainly from the intersection of modern life, ritual law and an evolving scientific understanding of sexuality.

This fall, the Committee tried to articulate a Conservative movement stance on the issue of mikvah, or ritual bath, used for post-menstrual immersion. It was the first time the Conservative movement had come to any official position on this issue.

Three different opinions were accepted on the issue of mikvah. Interpretations of various Talmudic terminology varied, with each of the three authors (Rabbis Susan Grossman, Avram Reisner and Miriam Beritowitz) agreeing that Judaism has a textual basis for some “purity rules.” But Grossman and Reisner contend that the additional seven days of abstinence from sex after menstruation, as required by Orthodox practice, is not necessarily supported by the text. Berkowitz finds what she believes to be a textual basis to require this. The three also differ on the concept of “family purity” in an era when married partners might not see each other daily, and also on the meaning of male purity in the larger debate.

It’s significant that the issue, which can be contentious, was formally addressed. Rabbi Grossman noted, “It reflects more than anything the Conservative movement’s sense of comfort with itself as an authentic interpreter of the continuing evolution of Jewish law.”

That comfort, and the confidence it gives, will be needed more than ever now that the Committee decided in December that openly gay and lesbian rabbinical students may be ordained. Although this affirmative vote technically only endows the movement’s seminaries with the choice of ordaining openly gay students, its tacit approval is expected to result in much greater overall inclusion of gays and lesbians in Conservative Jewish life. Certainly, it is a time of great engagement with text and society for the Conservative movement.