Take Me to the Mikveh

The Jewish ritual of living waters makes a comeback.

Like a powerful force of nature, young feminists have brought once-discarded women’s traditions crashing back to shore for a second examination. This relentless tide has reopened discussions on everything from the mundane (housework and knitting) to the racy (stripping and the sex trade).

More recently, interest seems to have turned to the spiritual, with women of all religious backgrounds proudly reclaiming traditions their feminist foremothers had all but dismissed. These traditions take many forms—from Muslim women’s modest covering (hijab) to Christian feminists’ reawakened passion for Mary.

For many Jewish women, the latest rediscovery is the mikveh (also mikvah), the rabbinically commanded monthly bath marking the end of a married woman’s menstrual period and her return to sexual relations. According to the Jewish family Web site mishpacha.org , the mikveh ritual can take place in a gathering of 'living waters,' a natural body of water like the ocean, a stream, or a cistern of rainwater. Most modern mikveh, however, are pools that combine “living water” with ordinary well or tap water in a manner specified by rabbis.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Jewish feminists claimed that the mikveh and other laws dealing with niddah, or menstruation, deemed women’s natural cycles unclean. (Under rabbinical law, married couples are forbidden to have sexual relations during the woman’s menstrual period and for seven days after menstruation has ceased. Some couples even sleep in separate beds during that time.) Objecting to what they saw as the patriarchal concept of “family purity,” many feminists rejected the mikveh and the rituals that surround it. Mikveh continued, of course, but mostly among Conservative and Orthodox Jews.

“Early feminists were very negative about the mikveh, seeing it as a denigration of women, a focus on ‘cleanliness’ and ‘impurity’ that seemed to be a way of keeping women from tainting men,” says Shuly Rubin Schwartz, assistant professor of American Jewish history at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. “Now women are saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is a tradition that was an important part of Judaism for our foremothers. Let’s look at the deeper meaning.’”

Danya Ruttenberg, editor of Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (Seal, 2001), is one such woman. A self-described “egalitarian Jew,” Ruttenberg had always been both intrigued by the idea of the mikveh and turned off by what she perceived to be the ritual’s not-so-hidden agenda.

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