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New Scholarship on Why Women Love Mikvah

From time to time, LILITH lets readers know of recent academic work of particular interest to Jewish feminists.

Charlotte Fonrobert, “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Blood: On the Politics of Gender in Early Rabbinic Culture.” PhD dissertation. Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of California at Berkeley.

The “politics of menstruation” would never have occupied to Jewish sages of yore. But delving into feminist critical theory and ancient Greco-Roman gynecological texts, Charlotte Fonrobert reveals traces of a feminine perspective within the male rabbinic discussions of menstrual impurity. One third-century Christian text describes a discussion between a Christian bishop and Jewish female converts to Christianity who wished to preserve rabbinic menstrual laws. This is among the pieces of evidence Fonrobert uses to demonstrate that the laws of niddah may have been perpetuated by women who valued both the seclusion mandated by the rabbinic laws and the religious identification with Judaism that it provided them when they lived among other peoples.

Jane Rothstein, joint doctoral program in History and Hebrew and Judaic Studies, New York University.

The laws of taharat ha-mishpakha, or family purity, are among the most complex and least widely practiced of all the mitzvot. They involve sexual separation between wife and husband for almost half of each month, and immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath) before resuming sexual contact. Pro-mikvah advocates bemoan the contemporary rejection of this practice with the refrain, “Your grandmothers chopped through frozen lakes in Russia to perform this mitzvah.”

But the survival of mikvah practices at all, Jane Rothstein maintains, can tell us much about how, more generally, Jewish women’s religious observance survived the upheaval of immigration and acculturation to America. By examining purity manuals written between 1900 and 1940, Rothstein discovered that early 20th-century Orthodox rabbis depended on American practices—such as affirmations from doctors and “sexologists”— to sell the benefits of mikvah observance to married Jewish couples who might otherwise have been suspicious of the practice. The rhetoric of these “niddah books,” Rothstein concludes, reveals more about Orthodoxy’s accommodation to American culture than about women’s ritual practices.