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The mikveh (pl. mikvaot), the Jewish immersion pool, has long been an essential part of traditional Jewish practice. Although both men and women may immerse in a mikveh under certain circumstances, prior to getting married, on conversion, or before the onset of shabbat, it has primarily been used by married women according to the “laws of family purity” or niddah. Women traditionally count five days from the beginning of their monthly period and then seven “clean days”, and then immerse themselves in a standing pool of natural water, the mikveh – although springs and oceans are permissible, these are now usually purpose built. The mikveh itself is not biblical, but subsequently developed in rabbinic thought as the means by which women could purify themselves as prescribed in Leviticus 18:19. Archaeological remains of mikvaot have been found in sites from both Israelite and nearby Diasporic communities dating back to the early centuries – this would suggest that the mikveh was in use long before its use had become mandatory in rabbinic law. Historically, the mikveh has assumed great importance in Jewish religious practice – classical rabbinic sources say that the mikveh must be the first communal institution to be built, even before a synagogue.
However, despite the importance of immersion in Jewish history, the mikveh has been long falling into disuse among the general Jewish community, outside of traditionalist circles who have mikvaot close to hand. A recent article extolling the virtues of immersion had to admit, “Outside of Orthodox circles, the mikvah experience is one of the least known and appreciated of any of the Jewish rituals.” This is partly down to many women increasingly rejecting the implications that they are “dirty” and must be “cleansed”. In reponse, Jewish feminists and gender theorists have begun to reinterpret the use of the mikveh to become more empowering and inclusive for women. This essay will draw together the traditional Jewish understandings of the mikveh, and the laws which underpin its use among married women, contrast the work of Jewish feminists who critique their religious heritage through a gender studies context, and explore the reasons many Jewish women feel alienated from their religious tradition. The essay will then consider solutions proposed by feminist theorists to re-engage Jewish women in the mikveh, as well as the reactions of traditional Jewish leaders, both positive and negative. The essay will then conclude with an overview of how mikvaot are perceived and how both Jewish theology and feminist theory have intersected and influenced each other. Judith Plaskow, one of the founders of Jewish feminist thought, has always argued that it is only combining Jewish religious practice with a feminist perspective that allows Jewish women to hold their own identity instead of one which has been enforced upon them. Plaskow proclaimed in 1990: “I am not a Jew in the synagogue and a feminist in the world. I am a Jewish feminist and a feminist Jew in every moment of my life.” However, this does not imply that traditional Jewish practice is necessarily exclusive of women in toto – Isaac Sassoon, a Sephardi Orthodox Rabbi, published a book in 2011 welcoming such interdisciplinary exploration, saying, “To the historian’s grief, religious texts tends to dwell more upon what ought to be than upon what is. But this bane of the historian is a boon to the serious Jewish feminist. For unlike the historian, ravenous to learn what happened in the past, the latter’s goal is to discover legal and religious precedent to the end of upgrading gender equality within the contemporary Jewish community”.
The most basic point of consideration – there has been considerable debate regarding whether being “impure” also means being “unclean”. The JPS Guide to Jewish Women suggests that after menstruation a woman is only ritually impure and unfit to undertake certain ritual obligations. There is no other effect upon a Jewish woman’s life. Shulamit Valler, in her book examining the representation of women in the Talmud, concluded differently, saying, “Jewish society had been a temple society and its central ideology was one of purity. The periodic changes arising from female physiology appeared to threaten the purity and spirituality of men. Men’s fears led them to want to subordinate women in everything concerned with their sexuality and reproductive powers.” While most other purity laws in the Bible have been disregarded with the destruction of the Temple, such as the laws render a man unclean until nightfall if he had an illicit seminal emission, the laws of family purity have, if anything, attracted even greater restrictions. Rashi, a medieval rabbi studied by generations of later scholars, issued a responsum, a judgement, in which he stated that a menstruating woman must not even give her husband a cup. Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi’s grandson and a renowned scholar, threatened to excommunicate a colleague who ruled that a woman may immerse in the morning of the seventh day rather than the evening because of the danger to her safety. Judith Plaskow primarily blames rabbinic Judaism for these disabilities as “legal and controlling” and feels taking the initiative back from the rabbis will result in a “fuller vision of the relationship between God and Israel, a vision that includes Jewish women”.
However, it is not just male rabbis which defend the laws of niddah. Rachel Adler, now an associate professor of Judaism and Gender at the University of South California, published an article in 1973 entitled, “Tum’ah and Toharah: Ends and Beginnings” attempting to combine a traditional perspective of immersion with a “feminist theology of purity”. She argued that the ritual impurity caused by menstruation was due to the shed blood from the unfertilised womb becoming a symbol of death. In order for sexual relations, the source of life, to resume, the woman must be “reborn” by “drowning” in the mikveh. While this is certainly an inventive explanation, which was duly lauded by critics at the time, Adler did not explain why, of all the laws of purity that were instituted in Ancient Israel, the one which was most inconvenient and burdensome (and which did not apply to men), would be retained and all the others would fall into disuse. Adler further claimed that the cycle of purity and impurity was a regular experience for all Ancient Israelites and was not “viewed as dangerous in any way”, nor was the experience “treated with dread and avoidance”. This seems unlikely: Adler refers to no sources to substantiate this claim, whereas Isaac Sassoon has a substantial argument that menstruating women were feared and placed under so many restrictions because she might pollute those she came into contact with. Adler herself subsequently affiliated to Reform Judaism and published an article in 1993 refuting her own statements twenty years earlier: “purity and impurity do not constitute a cycle through which all members of society pass, as I argued in my  essay. Instead, impurity and purity define a class system in which the most impure people are women.”
As Adler found, the ritual of mikveh is often treated in classical literature (which, as gender studies scholars must always note, is written by men for men), not as a tool to bring a woman closer to God through the fulfilment of a commandment, but as a tool by which she may commence sexual intimacy with her husband:
Existing theological justifications of menstrual impurity did not help me to make sense of myself as a God-created creature. They treated me, to use Kantian terminology, as a means to someone else’s end, rather than as an end in myself. To have the observance of niddah and mikveh justified to me as the instrumentality whereby my husband was entitled lawfully to cohabit was both inadequate and insulting.
Joseph Blenkinsopp, in his study of the family in Ancient Israel, suggested that this justification was actually to the detriment of the spiritual lives of Jewish women: “Whatever its original rationale, the sequestration of the woman during her menses and after childbearing served to perpetuate her essentially private status and justify her exclusion from public office, including the cult.” As the laws of the Torah form a framework by which the pious Jew deepens the covenant made with the God of Israel, this subjugation of women should be a worry for those involved in either the theology and gender studies disciplines. This concern is also enforced by the process by which immersion (designed by male rabbis) is carried out. Setting aside the historical and theological considerations of why the laws of niddah were introduced and considering the issue from a woman’s perspective, the whole experience of the mikveh can be deeply embarrassing. “Mikveh ladies”, appointed to ensure the immersion is conducted according to Jewish law, will often inspect a woman’s naked body in detail to ensure she is ritually clean enough to immerse. Even the act of attending the mikveh can be an ordeal if one does not wish to broadcast they are once again sexually active:
Observant Jewish women endure a high level of public scrutiny. Some describe going to the mikveh (ritual bath) as a humiliatingly public event. The mikveh is often right across the street from a synagogue, yeshiva, or kollel. Orthodox women are amongst the few who refuse hormone replacement therapy after they enter menopause. Freed from the duty of going to the mikveh, they don’t want the responsibility to resume along with their restored periods.
The response to these issues over the last century has been varied. Much of the early progressive literature simply omitted the issue of the mikveh and the laws of niddah altogether, seeing them as oppressive and outdated. William Rosenau, a prominent rabbi and leader of American Reform Judaism in the early twentieth century, published a very popular book, Jewish Ceremonial Institutions and Customs, in which the mikveh is not once mentioned. The Reform movement in Britain only built a mikveh in the 1970s to perform conversions. A comprehensive study of Israeli women, Gender and Israeli Society, only mentions the mikveh in passing as part of a discussion of Orthodox mother-daughter relationships. This may be attributable to the fact that as immersion is conducted in private, unless introduced by one’s parents, the mikveh may simply not feature in many Jewish writers’ upbringing. However, an academic debate of the last twenty years has been put into action. In 2004, Anita Diamant, a renowned feminist Jewish writer, founded a “community mikveh”, Mayyim Hayyim, to create a different experience not associated with issues of ritual purity, explaining,
People of all ages, including mid-life people, have been coming for a variety of transitions. People have come after divorce, people have come to mark the end of treatment for illness, we’ve also had people come to celebrate becoming grandparents. Women have come to mark menopause. Now none of these are commandments, they’re choices one makes, so it’s about reclaiming an ancient custom, an ancient tradition that is resonant for a more contemporary women and men.
Mayyim Hayyim is part of a small but increasing trend toward a more spiritual mikveh experience among progressive Jews. This reclamation, however, should be contextualised as part of a general trend within global progressive Judaism towards redefining Jewish traditional rituals and symbolism, rather than simply opting out of a dissatisfying historical interpretation clashing with a intersecting discipline.
There is a long-standing conflict between “traditional” and “progressive” forces in Judaism over the authority to interpret Jewish tradition too complex to detail here. However, mikveh is fairly unique in being one of the only Jewish institutions specifically aimed at women: perhaps prompting stronger reactions from traditional Jewish leaders than, say, changes in dietary laws or dress. Some have simply sought to undermine all efforts to carve out an egalitarian space for women in Judaism: Judith Plaskow tells a story about a left-wing Orthodox rabbi, having made an analogy to the Warsaw Ghetto, asked them whether they were feminists or Jews, with the implication that they could not be both. Even Orthodox women have expressed disinterest. Lady Elaine Sacks, wife of Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue, the largest Orthodox organisation in the UK, commented at the opening ceremony of an Orthodox mikveh in Oxford, “[Reform and Liberal uses of the mikveh] is certainly interesting – but we prefer to stick to the original, traditional purpose!” However, that Lady Sacks felt prompted to even address the actions of non-Orthodox Jews should give an indication of how far feminist thinking has penetrated Jewish religious discourse. Other writers have engaged in considerable mental gymnastics to deny this evolving understanding of the mikvaot, such as Judith Bleich, who derided the suggestion of Michael and Sharon Strassfeld of marking the birth of a baby girl by immersing her in a mikveh. Bleich accused the proposed ceremony as a form of baptism taken from Christian rites and “embarrassingly inappropriate“. Although the Strassfelds rightly pointed out in the same issue that Christianity developed baptism from the Jewish rite of immersion rather than the other way round, this dispute demonstrates the resistance of some women to dropping the ancient impure/pure rhetoric.
As the engagement over the meaning of the laws of niddah and the purpose of the mikveh continues, the resurrection of immersion in progressive communities has been paralleled within traditional communities. In response to feminist critiques of the ways in which the mikveh has been used to marginalise women, some rabbis have appropriated terminology and a more gender-sensitive approach. This is best exemplified by Chabad, the ultra-Orthodox outreach group, emulated by many Orthodox groups around the world. Their introductory article to the mikveh on their website denies any connection between impurity and “dirtiness”, blaming the association rather dubiously on non-Jewish city authorities forbidding Jews access to rivers. The author, hardly coincidentally a woman, indirectly confesses that “until a relatively short time ago, most mikvahs could best be described as utilitarian: function, not comfort, dictated their style”, but now, “beautiful, even lavish, mikvahs … are being built across this country and around the world.” The article is clearly aimed at women unfamiliar with a mikveh, promising comfort, non-judgemental guidance, and “a mitzvah at its best; a pure, unadulterated avenue of connection with G-d”. The article sidesteps issues of why the mikveh is needed and states simply, “an understanding of the ultimate reason for the framework of Family Purity and its culminating point — immersion in the mikvah — is impossible. We observe simply because G-d so ordained it”, although it does briefly detail menstrual blood as symbol of death motif that Adler had developed and rejected several decades before. This underlines the effort to create as welcoming a space for women as possible without compromising any points of Jewish law. Chabad is also involved in the building of hundreds of mikvaot which are warm, well-lit and beautiful. Overall, the Chabad interpretation of the mikveh offers a woman a greater spiritual connection with God, a greater sense of her own identity, and a better sex life. It seems unlikely that such a dramatic departure from the language of the classical Jewish texts explored earlier, and on which Chabad’s theology is built, could have occurred without the work of so many feminist scholars such as Plaskow, Adler and Diamant.
There is a subset of biblical commandments known as hukkim, or laws for which there is no logical or obvious basis. The laws of ritual purity would certainly fit that category. Entirely divorced from their original Temple purpose, and with the laws regarding menstruation associated with misogynistic overtones, it is tempting to excise both law, and mikveh, completely from contemporary Jewish practice. Reform Judaism initiated this process in the early twentieth century and many other Jewish groups have since followed. However, religion is a phenomenon intrinsically built on its own historical tradition, and to simply opt out of particular practices by virtue of their previous symbolism is unsatisfactory to Jewish feminist thinkers; Plaskow writes, “Even where I dissent from biblical or rabbinic teaching, where I find it problematic, unjust, or simply wrong, I still see it as part of a past that has shaped and formed me. As mine, it is a past for me to struggle with, not a past on which I am willing to turn my back.” But even as feminist Jews have begun to make steps in the direction of reclaiming the practice of mikveh, traditionalists have also begun to repackage their understanding. Ultimately, whether one has greater sympathies for those who wish to see mikveh practiced “as our fathers”, or for those who wish to expand the idea of holiness from purification to sanctification, the influence of one on the other has been profound. In the first half of the twentieth century, the women who draw such meaning from their immersions at Mayyim Hayyim would have found a Reform Judaism in America entirely uncomprehending. However, without the influence of gender theorists, would there be so many Orthodox mikvaot opening with marbled floors and clean water, marketed as some kind of spiritual spa? It seems quite unlikely. The real beneficiaries are not the Orthodox (male) authorities who can persuade more women to take up traditional ritual observance, or the Jewish feminists who seek to change Judaism inside out, but the Jews of all creeds who are finding a greater spiritual depth from their religion without compromising their dignity. Once perceived to a religious oddity practiced by a few, mikvaot are increasingly finding their way into the Jewish mainstream.
- Adler, Rachel. Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. Beacon Press, 1999.
- Fishkoff, Sue. The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch. Schocken, 2003.
- Levitt, Laura. Jews and Feminism: The Ambivalent Search for Home. Routledge, 1997.
- Naveh, Hannah. Gender and Israeli Society: Women’s Time. Vallentine Mitchell, 2003.
- Plaskow, Judith. Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.
- Perdue, L. Families in Ancient Israel. KY, 1997.
- Rosenau, William. Jewish Ceremonial Institutions and Customs. The Friedenwald Company, 1903.
- Royal, Derek Parker. Unfinalized Moments: Essays in the Development of Contemporary Jewish American Narrative. Purdue University Press, 2011.
- Ruttenberg, Danya. The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism. New York University Press, 2009.
- Sassoon, Isaac. The State of Women in Jewish Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
- Taitz, Emily et al. The JPS Guide to Jewish Women 600 B.C.E.-1900 C.E. Jewish Publication Society, 2003.
- Valler, Shulamit. Women and Womenhood in the Talmud. Atlanta GA, 1993.
- Adler, Rachel. “In Your Blood, Live: Re:Visions of a Theology of Purity”. Tikkun Magazine, January/February 1993.
- Bleich, Judith. “The Symbolism in Innovative Rituals.” Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility. December 23rd, 1983, pp 25-26.
- Strassfeld, Sharon M. Strassfeld, Michael. “An Appropriate Ceremony for Daughters.” Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility. December 23rd, 1983, pp 27-28.
- Adler, Rachel. “Tum’ah and Toharah: Ends and Beginnings.” Adler, Rachel. “Tum’ah and Toharah: Ends and Beginnings.” Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review , Summer 1973. , Summer 1973.
- Falik, Chana, “Some visitors to Israel finding mikvah immersion provides purification for holidays”, September 14, 2001, JWeekly.com. http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/16403/some–visitors–to–israel–finding–mikvah–immersion–provides–purification–for-/ Accessed April 17th, 2012.
- Slonim Rivkah, “The Mikvah”, extract from Rivkah Slonim, “Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology” .Jason Aronson, 1996. http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/1541/jewish/The–Mikvah.htm. Accessed April 17th, 2012.
- “Mayyim Hayyim”, “Mayyim Hayyim featured on PBS Program “Boomers!”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJiZBdysrUY Accessed April 17th, 2012.
- Sacks, Elaine, “Address at Ground-Breaking Ceremony for a new Oxford Mikvah”, Oxford Chabad. Available at http://www.oxfordchabad.org/templates/articlecco_cdo/AID/450479. Accessed April 17th, 2012.
 Emily Taitz et al, The JPS Guide to Jewish Women 600 B.C.E.-1900 C.E. (Jewish Publication Society, 2003), pg 14.
 The reasoning for this is that because couples are not supposed to resume sexual intimacy before the woman has immersed in the mikveh, technically a Jewish community without a mikveh should be celibate and would soon die out.
 Chana Falik, “Some visitors to Israel finding mikvah immersion provides purification for holidays”, September 14, 2001, JWeekly.com. http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/16403/some–visitors–to–israel–finding–mikvah–immersion–provides–purification–for-/ Accessed April 17th, 2012.
 Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), pg xi.
 Isaac Sassoon, The State of Women in Jewish Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 2011), pg vii.
 Taitz et al, The JPS Guide to Jewish Women 600 B.C.E.-1900 C.E., pg 284.
 Shulamit Valler, Women and Womenhood in the Talmud (Atlanta GA, 1993), pg xvii.
 Teshuvot Rashi in Taitz et al, The JPS Guide to Jewish Women 600 B.C.E.-1900 C.E., pg 285.
 Taitz et al, The JPS Guide to Jewish Women 600 B.C.E.-1900 C.E., pg 95.
 Laura Levitt, Jews and Feminism: The Ambivalent Search for Home (Routledge, 1997), pg 91.
 Rachel Adler. “Tum’ah and Toharah: Ends and Beginnings”, Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review , Summer 1973, pg 120.
 ibid, pg 122.
 ibid, pg 119.
 Sassoon, The State of Women in Jewish Tradition, pg 88-89.
15 Rachel Adler, “In Your Blood, Live: Re:Visions of a Theology of Purity”, Tikkun Magazine, January/February 1993.
 Joseph Blenkinsopp, “The Family in First Temple Israel” in L. Perdue, Families in Ancient Israel (KY, 1997).
 Falik, “Some visitors to Israel finding mikvah immersion provides purification for holidays”.
 Derek Parker Royal, Unfinalized Moments: Essays in the Development of Contemporary Jewish American Narrative (Purdue University Press, 2011), pg 31.
 Hannah Naveh, Gender and Israeli Society: Women’s Time (Vallentine Mitchell, 2003), pg 144.
 See “Reclaiming Niddah and Mikveh” in Danya Ruttenberg, The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism (New York University Press, 2009), pp116-135.
 Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, pg x.
 Elaine Sacks, “Address at Ground-Breaking Ceremony for a new Oxford Mikvah”, Oxford Chabad. Available at http://www.oxfordchabad.org/templates/articlecco_cdo/AID/450479. Accessed April 17th, 2012.
 Judith Bleich, “The Symbolism in Innovative Rituals.”, Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, December 23rd, 1983, pg 28.
 Rivkah Slonim, “The Mikvah”, extract from Rivkah Slonim, “Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology” .Jason Aronson, 1996. http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/1541/jewish/The–Mikvah.htm. Accessed April 17th, 2012.
 “Holy Dip: Mikvah Makes a Comeback”, in Sue Fishkoff, The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken, 2003), pg 148-160.
 Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, pg xx.
 1 Chronicles 29:15.
 Fishkoff, The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, pg 150.