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.