Mikvah: The Secret of Jewish Sisterhood


By Atara Kaye

The practice of mikvah was a conscious choice made Jewish women throughout history…. Contemporary studies of Jewry rebut claims that Jewish women are oppressed in this regard.

Mikvah, the ritual bath used by many Jewish women to purify themselves after their menstruation, is a subject of great significance to the Jewish People. It’s a ritual that traditional Jewish communities held sacred for thousands of years, one universally practiced in Orthodox Jewish communities today.

Contemporary Jews who are critical of the ritual maintain that mikvah oppresses the Jewish woman to be ‘sex ready’ and clean for their husbands. They assume that this ritual bath for women is forced upon them; they have no choice but to perform this hateful archaic ritual, a relic of an ancient world. Furthermore, the critics would understand this women’s ritual as an instrument of a patriarchy disgusted by menstrual bleeding, declared menstruating women as dirty and unclean. This fear by men was the reason for Jewish men to force their wives to accept oppressing laws that forbid intercourse during menstruation and took as far as forbidding the husband and wife to eat from the same plate of food. This fearful rite translated in Jewish women dreading their monthly menstruation, expecting to be met by the rejection by their spouses due to this oppressing ritual.

It’s likely that these arguments may be rooted in a Christian feminist allegation during the 1970s that the Jewish People invented the patriarchy and that Judaism is the source of society’s sexism, a claim which appeared to the Jewish community simply as a feminist version of classic Christian antisemitism.

Regardless of the source of the criticism of mikvah, this perspective very well may be the case for some women, at the same time, it would not reflect the entirety of the Jewish woman’s experience. Perhaps mikvah is more meaningful than one might think. Why would women continue to practice a law through the ages, even during times when performing any Jewish ritual could incur a death penalty from the non-Jewish authorities? If Jewish women were so oppressed by this seemingly ancient tradition, they would have dropped the ritual at the first opportunity, and there were numerous occasions throughout Jewish history to do exactly so (e.g. the Greek Hellenization, Roman occupation, Spanish Inquisition, etc.). Perhaps the reason this mitzvah continues to exist, even thrive, in a postmodern world is because this ritual is much deeper and meaningful for Jewish women. Perhaps the practice of mikvah was a conscious choice made Jewish women throughout history. Mikvah may just be the secret of the Jewish sisterhood, a sisterhood that both empowers women as well as gives them the feeling of equality in a patriarchal world.

If this positive perspective is true, mikvah may be a great historical example of feminism and sisterhood. The halacha of mikvah has been traditionally passed on to women, and many women see their fulfillment of the ritual at the very center of their religious identity. Of course, going to mikvah would be different for each woman. Context as well as environment can have a significant impact on a woman’s attitude to the arrival of her mikvah night. Some might see going to mikvah at night as exciting and even mysterious, while others may feel with anger and resentment for an obligation that would require them to go out late at night in the freezing winter or to pass through a dangerous side of town, etc. (Wasserfall, 1999). In some communities in Israel, women would see this ritual as either patriarchal (institutionalised by men) or increasingly politicised (Cicurel, 2000).

In any case, contemporary studies of Jewry rebut claims that Jewish women are oppressed in this regard.  Scholars have found that American Jewish women who are mikvah users do not have a significantly different negative view towards menstruation than non-mikvah users. Additionally, researchers found that mikvah users felt significantly more inter-menstrual arousal than non-mikvah users (Siegel, 1986). In fact, many observant American Jewish women see mikvah as an enhancement to their family life (Wasserfall, 1999). This finding may lend support for the Jewish understanding of the concept of mikvah as a tool for revitalising the marriage with passion (Boteach, 2000).

We see that the practice of mikvah is one Jewish women throughout the ages were proud of, and even today, it is a practiced embraced by many, a rite seen as a secret of Jewish sisterhood, a key to Jewish survival.

References

Boteach, S. (2000). Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy. Harmony Books.

Cicurel, I. E. (2000). The Rabbinate versus Israeli (Jewish) women: The Mikvah as a contested domain. Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, 164-190.

Siegel, S. J. (1986). The effect of culture on how women experience menstruation: Jewish women and Mikvah. Women & Health, 10(4), 63-74.

Wasserfall, R. R. (1999). Women and Water. Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law. pp.1 – 14.

Birth in Chabad: Magical Amulets and Other Customs

Birth in Chabad: Magical Amulets and Other Customs

By Dovi Seldowitz

Chabad customs concerning childbirth are part of an eclectic source of material. When taking into account customs relating to pregnancy, childbirth, circumcision and other birth-related rituals, Chabad birth customs include dozens of individual practices. These customs range from commonsensical ideas, to mystical rites, from individual family traditions, to standardized legalistic guidelines. A good deal of Chabad customs surrounding birth overlap the customs of other Orthodox and Chasidic communities, however, the custom particular to Chabad is the use of a Kabbalistic mandala popularly known as a “‘shir hamaalot‘ card” after its inscription of a Psalm beginning with those words. The Chabad is known for promoting this particular birth custom, after it being heavily encouraged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.[1]

This Chabad practice of the “‘shir hamaalot‘ card” is not entirely original; both Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities have a long history of including magical practices, including amulets, at the birth of a Jewish child. While those medieval rites have waned in modern times, Chabad’s public emphasis in using a Kabbalistic birth amulet makes the movement stand out within general Orthodoxy, as Chabad promotes these long-forgotten Jewish customs even in contemporary birth settings where Western medicine is typically placed ahead of all other alternative forms of healing.

Sociologists have noted the contemporary trend towards the medicalization of childbirth. What was once a purely social and/or personal event now specifically takes place within a medical context.[2] Chabad’s stance on placing a Jewish mandala in a hospital birthing room allows Jewish families to reclaim an increasingly medicalized event as their own personal moment, placing Western medicine alongside the traditional belief of divine protection.

Another custom quite particular to Chabad relates to the birth of a baby girl. Chabad customs include exclaiming traditional congratulations for the child, making sure to emphasize female Torah study. The congratulations is that the child will be raised “to (study) Torah, to marry and to (perform) good deeds.”[1] This egalitarian attribution of the value of Torah study for both males and females is not restricted to Chabad, but Chabad has emphasized this idea in a particularly powerful manner, as this custom emphasizes female Torah study from the time of one’s birth.

Chabad’s emphasis on particular childbirth customs reveal some of the movement’s core values. The use of a Kabbalistic amulet points to Chabad’s mission to raise general awareness and pride of Jewish traditions, even in settings not entirely conducive to such practices. And the Chabad’s stance on the involvement of women in Jewish life is also revealed in some of the customs surrounding the birth of baby girls. Overall, Chabad childbirth customs can be seen within the greater context of the movement’s emphasis on keeping Jewish traditions alive today and reinforcing them with the particular ideological approach of Chabad Chasidus.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Avraham Yeshaya Holtzberg, “Kovetz Minhagim: Customs of Pregnancy and Birth,” Shimon Neubort trans, The Jewish Woman, Chabad.org.

[2] See for example, Alyson Henley-Einion, “The medicalisation of childbirth,” The Social Context of Birth, Caroline Squire ed. Radcliffe Publishing, (2003): 173-186; Gay Becker and Robert D. Nachtigall, “Eager for medicalisation: the social production of infertility as a disease.” Sociology of Health & Illness 14, no. 4 (1992): 456-471.

What Does it Take to Be a #ChabadWoman – The Contribution of the #N’sheiChabad

Major Trends in Chabad Womanhood:

The Contribution of the Lubavitch Women’s Organization or N’shei Chabad

By: Dovi Seldowitz

It is impossible to discuss the work of Chabad without the specific mention of Chabad women. Women’s activism is one of the key features that distinguishes Chabad from other Chasidic movements as well as from other Orthodox outreach groups; it is incorporated within most major Chabad organizations where women serve as administrators, event organizers, program directors, writers, lecturers and editors. Chabad women have been involved in outreach activities for decades, and strong recognition should be accorded to the Lubavitch Women’s Organization, an organization which was founded for the very purpose of involving Chabad women in the movement’s outreach activities.

The Lubavitch Women’s Organization, Agudas N’shei Chabad in Hebrew (commonly known as N’shei U’bnos Chabad or simply N’shei Chabad), was founded by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in the early 1950s. The Rebbe had sought the inclusion of Chasidic women in the Chabad movement’s outreach activities and local community life; at the time of its founding, N’shei Chabad stood out among other Orthodox women’s groups for focusing not on fundraising or auxiliary activities, but on Jewish education for girls and women both in local communities as well as in outreach settings.[1] Today, very much as a result of the N’shei Chabad’s activities, Chabad women are very much a part of communal life and the Chabad movement’s outreach activities would be incomplete without their participation. This trend stands out as few religious organizations and movements in the United States boast high numbers of women in leadership roles. Chabad is among the few religious groups in America with a high percentage of women in leadership roles.[2]

While the women of Chabad, their community standing and participation, have been the subject of study for a number of social scientists and journalists, the N’shei Chabad organization was of particular interest to a young Jewish sociologist in the 1980s. Dr. Bonnie Morris wrote her thesis on the activism of Chabad women and has written on the activities of the N’shei Chabad, paying particular attention to the writings of the women activists in the publications of the N’shei Chabad. According to Dr. Morris, the activist role enabled the Chabad woman to become a real participant in Chabad communal life, its activism and the formulation of Chabad’s activist ideology.[3]

The status of women in society is a matter that became a central and defining issue for American women in late 1960s and 1970s. For Chabad women, the Lubavitch Women’s Organization allowed them to not only be involved in community activism and outreach but to even take a unique stance on key feminist issues of the day. The N’shei Chabad resisted the “liberation” aspects of the feminist movement, instead, offered a unique position of religious female leadership to Chabad women, a role that was and is still very much evolving. Chabad women today are by no means bound by the limits of this one organization, instead they may assume a number of roles in the various existing Chabad organizations, and nothing prevents them from forming new groups to tackle whatever challenges they feel that need to be addressed.

Looking back, the activities of the N’shei Chabad organization has had a significant impact of the status of Chabad women today. The organization’s achievements has enabled women, both young and old, to become leaders, not only for their local Chasidic communities, but for the movement’s national and global outreach organizations as well.

Note: Over the years, the N’shei Chabad published a number of publications, below is a partial list of their works.

  • Di Yiddishe Heim – a Yiddish/English magazine for Lubavitch women, published twice (later four times) a year, running from 1958 to 1994?;
  • N’shei Chabad Newsletter – an English magazine for Lubavitch women, running from 1976-present;
  • The Spice and Spirit of Kosher Cooking – a bestselling cookbook with multiple printings, includes educational material on kashrut, challah and the Jewish holidays;
  • AURA: A Reader on Jewish Womanhood – a 1984 essay collection on the role of the Jewish woman;
  • A Candle of My Own – a short illustrated work published in 1977 on lighting shabbat candles featuring a collection of poems and compositions submitted by a number of young girls to N’shei Chabad;
  • Return to Roots – a 1979 book on the growth of N’shei Chabad in Europe;
  • The Gift – a short paperback book of essays on shabbat and candle lighting;
  • Body & Soul: A Handbook for Kosher Living – a 1992 book on kashrut;
  • Shlichus: Outreach Insights – A two volume resource guide for Chabad outreach workers.

The N’shei Chabad was also behind a number of other Chabad publications such as The Modern Jewish Woman, a 1981 collection of essays on the role of the Jewish woman.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Eli Rubin, “Lubavitch Women’s Organization: Chassidic Feminism 1951-1953,” Chabad.org; “The Woman in Lubavitch,” Chabad.org; Bonnie J. Morris, “Hasidic Women in the United States,” Jewish Women’s Archive – Encyclopedia, JWA.org.

[2] See, Tiffani Lennon, D. Spotts, and M. Mitchell, “Benchmarking women’s leadership in the United States,” Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver (2013); R. C. Berman, ”Chabad women on campus defy stereotype of ‘rabbi’s wife.’” Lubavitch.com, November 11, 2008.

[3] See, Bonnie J. Morris, “Agents or victims of religious ideology? Approaches to locating Hasidic women in feminist studies,” New World Hasidim: Ethnographic Studies of Hasidic Jews in America (1995): 161-181; Bonnie J. Morris, Lubavitcher Women in America: Identity and Activism in the Postwar Era, SUNY Press, 2012.