Misunderstanding Mikvah

Misunderstanding Mikvah

A more absurd projection of Christian sexual asceticism onto Judaism would be hard to imagine. Think Again. First, a confession: I am not a woman. Though subject to the same periods of sexual separation as my wife, I am not required to immerse in the mikve prior to resuming sexual relations. So anything I might say about the institution of mikve is obviously not from firsthand experience.

But I can read well enough to recognize a hatchet job. And that ability to read, as well as listen, provides access to what religious women themselves say about experience of the mikve.

That brings me to Anat Zuria's documentary Purity, dealing with the Jewish laws of family purity surrounding a woman's menstrual cycle, which was recently the subject of lengthy profiles in Ha'aretz and this paper ("Pure but not simple," Jerusalem Post Magazine, November 8, 2002). Like all such exposes of the lives of religious Jews, whether fictional treatments or documentaries, Purity has garnered widespread attention and numerous film-festival invitations.

Reviewers tend to treat these works as uncontestable statements of fact, rather than expressions of a particular point of view. Even Amos Gitai's purely fictional work Kadosh, which the director himself admitted was agit-prop - his way of "voting against the religious right" - was treated as if it were an unassailable treatment of marriage in the haredi community.

Gitai's film thus established for New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden "the profound and shocking misogyny" of the haredi world that has its source in a "fear and loathing of sex." In a similar vein, Yair Sheleg in Ha'aretz and Shula Kopf in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, simply provided a platform for Zuria to vent her "anger" about the mikve and the laws of family purity, with nary a positive word about either to be heard.

Yet Zuria is, to say the least, a highly biased observer of how religious women experience mikve. She comes from a purely secular background, and, more significantly, continued to define herself as secular even after her marriage to Yossi, a religious soldier who she met in the army. She agreed to keep the laws of Shabbat, kashrut, and family purity not out of any conviction, but as the price to be paid for marrying her husband. These laws were forced upon her by her husband without any attempt to present them in a positive light. Following the highly idiosyncratic religious philosophy of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Yossi simply told her "that's the Halacha, and that's that." No wonder she experiences these laws as something negative: They were imposed upon her against her will.

ONE WOULD never know from the media reports of Purity that the laws of family purity, as the formerly haredi Judith Rotem writes in Distant Sisters: the women I left behind, "have been made public in an unprecedented manner," and are one of the most effective tools for attracting secular Jewish women to religious observance. Feminist sociologist Debra Renee Kaufman reports in her study of newly observant women, Rachel's Daughters, several cases of women who came to Orthodoxy after first following the laws of sexual separation with their boyfriends, now husbands.

One PhD psychologist told her, "I had counseled many young people about sexual practices. When I first read about taharat mishpacha, [the rules] made absolutely good sense to me psychologically." Suzanne Kest, who lectures in Los Angeles to secular Jewish women about family purity, reports that many are "brought to tears by the thought of a society in which every move is not subject to the lens of male appraisal, and where they may be truly free to be themselves."

Unlike Zuria, who was provided with no explanation of the laws imposed upon her, the women interviewed by Kaufman "describe their sexuality within marriage not as a biological need or self- expression, but rather as a holy ritual.... The symbolic framework emerging from their language, imagery, and experiences moves beyond the self and dyad to the community at large."

When they immerse in the mikve, they feel a sense of connection to Jewish women throughout history. One muses, "The Jews at Masada used the mikve." For these women, the comparison between their menstrual cycles and the waxing and waning of the moon, which marks the Jewish calendar, is clear. "Renewal and regeneration of life forces," Kaufman found, "are themes that run throughout these women's commentaries."

"The family-purity laws are so in line with me as a woman.... I have two weeks each month for myself," one woman told Kaufman. Far from experiencing the mikve as a burden, gynecologist Channah Catane reports that many religious patients "request hormonal treatment [after menopause] solely to continue going to the mikve."
Kopf, in her review of Purity, quotes, without questioning, Toronto University professor Tirzah Meachum's assertion that the rabbis viewed sexual relations as an evil that they tried "to eliminate as much as possible." A more absurd projection of Christian sexual asceticism onto Judaism would be hard to imagine.

The Talmud relates the story of a student who hid under his teacher's bed. When he was found out, he explained himself simply, "This too is Torah and I must learn it." According to the rabbis, the two cherubim on top of the ark, one female, the other male, locked in embrace, symbolized the love of God for the Jewish people. Immersion frequently precedes spiritual ascension in the Torah. The Jewish people all immersed before receiving the Torah; the convert immerses as part of the conversion process; and a woman immerses prior to resuming marital relations with her husband.

The Talmud describes the laws of family purity as rendering wives forever attractive in their husbands' eyes, and both survey evidence and individual testimonials support this claim. Pioneer sexologist Alfred Kinsey found that over a lifetime, Orthodox Jews have the most frequent sexual relations. When others have petered out, the alternating periods of abstention and coming together help Orthodox Jews sustain sexual interest and excitement. Even the prohibitions on touching and passing between spouses when the wife is a nidda, which are frequently inconvenient or bothersome, serve to reinforce an awareness of the electricity between them.

In the opening narrative of her film, Zuria says, "For 2,000 years women having been going to the mikve.... They always go at night, in the dark, so as not be be seen," and Kopf concludes her admiring piece, "Meanwhile, with resignation and anger, she keeps going to the mikve, always at night, in the dark, as required by Jewish Law, so as not to be seen."Leaving aside that women go to the mikve at night because that is the earliest time they are permitted to immerse, both Zuria and Kopf conflate what is private with what is shameful. The very privacy of Orthodox sexual relations intensifies those relations. Kaufman reports that by "maintaining and preserving appearances of chastity.... the ba'alot teshuva [newly observant] seem to stimulate their sense of sexuality." Even feminist icon Germaine Greer has acknowledged, "Chastity endows sexual activity with added importance by limiting its enjoyment to special persons and special times."

Let us hope that Purity and Kopf's review do not prevent more Jews from discovering one of the secrets of a successful Jewish marriage.

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