Take Back the Waters

A Feminist re-appropriation of Mikvah

There we were, a strange-looking group: four of my closest women friends naked and singing, splashing around with glee. I would dunk into the water, come up, and hear a beautiful wish, or a poem, or a prayer. The water was sweet and warm, and my tears flowed and mixed with it. For this was my night as a Kallah, a Jewish bride, and I was in the mikvah.

As a feminist I have struggled with the Jewish menstrual taboos for many years. Leviticus 25 prohibits a menstruating woman from touching her husband or even his things for seven days; while at the same time it proscribes her husband from even sitting on the same chair upon which she has sat. This period of seven days legislated by the Torah was later extended by the rabbis who added yet another seven. Today’s apologists often quote the Talmudic text (Niddah 66a) which insists that “the women themselves added more stringency” to the already existing law. In wondering why women would do such, a cynic might suggest that the women of Talmudic times disliked their husbands sexually and wanted an extra seven days of “privacy.” More likely, the rabbis insisted on the added days but ascribed the desire to women to convince them that they themselves should want it that way. The third possibility is the most interesting and least likely, in my opinion; that the rabbis actually acquiesced to the power of collective women legislating for themselves. I find it improbable, judging by the way the rabbis described women’s bodies and psyches, that women themselves actually ever entered into the debate on menstruation and its ramifications upon Jewish life. Furthermore, if this is true, it establishes a precedent for women to legislate halacha for themselves today.

Why the additional days? Why the mikvah at all? Is this simply a male revulsion toward the power of the female body; or is it, as some would suggest, the “whisper of death” within woman from which she must be cleansed in order to return to the fold. For in truth, every time a woman menstruates she loses the lining of her uterus which would have housed a child; and Judaism has always seen the dead as a source of defilement. (For instance, a Cohen may not go near a corpse.) This cleansing from the “whisper of death” is not a sexist reaction to menstruation, some would argue; rather it is a spiritual and deep understanding of the female biological process.

However we look at it, there can be no doubt that the mikvah has been tied to menstruation since the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent end of other types of “impurities.” Therefore, while men may occasionally go to mikvah to prepare for Shabbat or festivals, or even, among the ultra-observant, after an involuntary nocturnal emission, they are never predictably and cyclically in need of cleansing. For men, mikvah is non-obligatory and going is an act usually unconnected to their biologies or their marital status. Add to this the dirty and dark atmosphere of mikvaot in poor immigrant neighborhoods when our mothers grew up, fostering in them a fear and loathing of the whole process which we have inherited. Now add the English Biblical translation of a menstruating woman as “unclean” or “impure.” Add our grandmother’s “meises” about not touching a Torah during that time of month. (This has absolutely no halachic basis. R. Yehudah ben Batera in Tractate Brachot and also the Tosefta of Brachot (22a) state that a menstruating woman may even go up to the Torah. A Torah scroll is supra-holy: it is too holy to be defiled by any person or any object at all.) Then add one more piece of fuel to the fire: that mikvah has been the domain of married women only. It is inexorably linked to having a husband, to making oneself ready to return to sexual relations with one’s male partner, to being connected to a man. Divorced and single women, even though menstruating, are not to go to mikvah, according to tradition—because no matter how we try to skirt the issue, no matter how we rewrite history or remake images, the bottom line is that mikvah is seen as the last necessary step before resuming sexual relations within a heterosexual marriage, a step commanded by God. Any other reason for going—to spiritually renew oneself after one’s cycle, to cleanse from this “whisper of death,” to link oneself to Jewish women’s history, to reground after feeling crampy and bloated—all these are lovely, interesting and unique. But according to tradition these reasons are ultimately secondary and even superfluous. All of these factors add up to a great deal of resentment toward the mikvah among modern women.

Why then was I, a Reform rabbi and committed feminist, splashing around in the mikvah? Was I going to make myself “kosher” for my new husband? Hardly. For me, it was an experience of reappropriation. The mikvah has been taken from me as a Jewish woman by sexist interpretations, by my experiences with Orthodox “family purity” committees who run communal mikvaot as Orthodox monopolies, by a history of male biases, fears of menstruation and superstitions. I was going to take back the water.

To take back the water means to see mikvah as a wholly female experience: as Miriam’s well gave water to the Israelites so too will the mikvah give strength back to Jewish women. Water is the symbol of birth—now it can be a symbol of rebirth. To take back the water means to open the mikvah up to women not attached to men. In order to do that we may have to build alternative mikvaot, run by women, for women, following women’s rules, not funded or run “behind the scenes” by male rabbis with family purity laws or their own denominational terrorities to protect. To take back the waters means to dip on Rosh Chodesh, when the moon and the sea and women’s cycles become one. To take back the water means to open the mikvah during the day, so women don’t have to sneak in under cover of darkness. (If we aren’t ashamed of our bodies, why do we need to hide our immersions? If we reject the notion that mikvah is only for the right to resume sex with our husbands, we won’t have to be modest about going.) To take back the water means to turn the mikvah into a Jewish women’s center: with Torah learning and books available, maybe even feminist shiurim, not just sheitl advertisements and pamphlets on keeping a kosher home.

But why bother at all to take back the water? Why not simply abandon an institution which has been used to debase us? Because we have so little that is ours. We put on a tallis but in doing so we share a man’s ritual garb. The water is ours: it is the fluid of our own bodies and a deeply moving experience of connection to Mother Earth. We climb the top of Masada in Israel and there we see a mikvah. It is our Jewish history.

So there we were: washing away past relationships, past hurts. As we prepared, we sang; one friend washed my hair, another rubbed my feet. When I entered the water, they all entered with me. I began with a chant: May my tevilah (immersion) cleanse me of past wrongs… May it cleanse me of grudges toward past loves… May it cleanse me of pain from past loves… May it cleanse me of the times I have hurt past loves… May it move me in the future… May my tevilah connect me to other women… May it strengthen my commitment to women’s causes… May it bring out the goodness of woman in me. I dipped and sang out the traditional blessing, not meekly and with arms covering my breasts as the attendant would have liked, but in a clear, loud song. And I dipped again and again, saying “Amen, May it be Your will,” as each friend offered her prayer, her wish for my future life. The attendant grew weary of what she thought were antics—yet we continued in this deeply spiritual vein long after she had left. It was a moment which inspired me. It was a moment I shall never forget. It was a moment of taking back what was mine a long time ago, offering a new wisdom of the water which can be uplifting for all women.

Elyse Goldstein is Assistant Rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. She is active in Jewish feminist causes, and is a founding member of Toronto Women of Faith (an interfaith women’s clergy group). She hopes to one day generate enough interest in the feminist community to build an “alternative” mikvah along the lines proposed in the article.