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.

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Chabad and Hillel Learn from Each Other #ChabadSociology #ChabadandHillel

Hillel-LogoIn the spirit of the upcoming Jewish New Year, we’d like to point to a finding that should warm your heart.

Chabad on Campus and Hillel are two Jewish organizations that serve the needs of Jewish students at universities all across the United States.

In may ways, they are engaged in a fierce competition. They compete for student involvement and public support. Their approaches are different, but they are playing on the same turf.

But one student found that Chabad and Hillel learn from each other.

In her Master’s Thesis, Heath Watenmaker at HUC points to some of the ways the organizations influence one another. According to Watenmaker: “Largely in response to Chabad’s presence on campus, Hillel has actively tried to incorporate more of a family feel into their Shabbat experience… Perhaps as an adaptation to Hillel’s ability to successfully reach large groups of students with highly social events, Chabad now holds events like paintballing… and they have monthly social gatherings.”

While this does not account for the experience at all campuses, this is a development that is wonderful to see.

References:

Watenmaker, Heath A. Building Bridges, Creating Community: How Hillel and Chabad Reach out to Students on Campus. HUC-JIR School of Jewish Nonprofit Management (formerly School of Jewish Communal Service) Masters Theses. Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion School of Jewish Communal Service. May 2006: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=5126

Summing Up the Total Chabad School Count

In “Comparing Full-Time and Part-Time Numbers at Chabad Schools” we’ve noted the numbers on Chabad day schools (full-time Jewish schools). In this post, we’ve summarized the total and provided the average student count for Chabad schools.

dayschools

There are at least 222 part-time Jewish schools affiliated with Chabad. Student body is about 8,500. The average student count per school is 38.

There are at least 73 part-time Jewish schools affiliated with Chabad. Student body is about 12,300. The average student count per school is 168.

In total, there are at least 295 Jewish schools affiliated with Chabad. Student body is about 20,750. The average student count per school is 70.

The report on part-time Jewish schools can be accessed here.

The report on full-time Jewish schools can be accessed here.

References:

Schick, Marvin. A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States 2008-2009. Avi Chai Foundation. October 2009.

Wertheimer, Jack. A Census of Jewish Supplementary Schools in the United States: 2006-2007. Avi Chai Foundation. August 2008.

Comparing Full-Time and Part-Time Numbers at Chabad Schools

In contrast to the numbers on Jewish supplementary schools (listed in the posts “Jewish Education Census Shows Chabad Schools at 13% of Total Supplementary Schools” and “4% of American Jewish Children at Supplementary Schools go to Chabad“), Chabad schools make up 9% of all day schools and 5% of that student body.

dayschools
Jewish Day School Figures

Chabad day school figures are as follows:

There are 73 Chabad affiliated day schools, serving over 12,000 students.

You can view the full report here.

References:

Schick, Marvin. A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States 2008-2009. Avi Chai Foundation. October 2009.

Report Examines the Training of Chabad Rabbis

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Report Examines the Training of Chabad Rabbis

What are the requirements to become a Chabad rabbi?

What part of that training allows these young men to reach out to non-affiliated Jews and successfully strengthen their Jewish identities?

According to Adam Ferziger at the Rappaport Center for Assimilation Research, Chabad rabbis have a unique advantage over rabbinic candidates at other schools.

The actual requirements for ordination at Chabad are as follows:

“A candidate for Chabad ordination has to complete three years of full-time post-high school Torah study in a Chabad yeshiva. Assuming that he has demonstrated the proper intellectual and religious qualities, at the age of 20 or 21 he is permitted to study the Jewish legal codes that he will be tested on in order to receive ordination. In addition to the sections on the dietary laws, the four tests that he must pass include the laws of Sabbath and prayer.”

But that is not all. Chabad rabbis begin their training in Jewish outreach before they even enter the ordination program:

“[The] training of a Chabad rabbi/emissary begins years before he actually studies the material required for ordination. From the age of fourteen, male Chabad high school students throughout the world are given what is known as a “route.” Every Friday they finish school early, but instead of going home or relaxing, they are assigned to a local area – a few streets, a town square, a group of stores, a meeting place of Jews – where they are expected to help non-observant Jews perform mitzvos (commandments). Generally this means offering Sabbath candlesticks to women, enabling men to don Tephillin (ritual phylacteries) or offering the opportunity to Jews to perform the blessing on the four species on Sukkot. They return every week for long periods of time and develop a relationship with the local Jewish population. Moreover, they learn to rid themselves of adolescent shyness and to cultivate communication skills and to become more comfortable with the colloquial language of the public. By the time they receive ordination, they have been working as shelihim (emissaries) for as long as eight years. They are then, not only intellectually and religiously equipped, they have also devoted more time – albeit with little accompanying theoretics – to learning how to approach a Jewish public that is prone to assimilation than the average graduate of any other rabbinical program. Indeed, they also share experiences with their friends and their teachers and receive advice on how to deal with the various situations that they encounter. Clearly when they become emissaries they will move to new locales and face new challenges, but they will bring with them a wealth of hands-on experience.”

You can view the full report here.

References:

Ferziger, Adam. Training American Orthodox Rabbis to Play a Role in Confronting Assimilation: Programs, Methodologies and Directions. Research and Position Papers of the Rappaport Center. The Rappaport Center for Assimilation Research and Strengthening Jewish Vitality. 2003:http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=14244

4% of American Jewish Children at Supplementary Schools go to Chabad

In our last post, “Jewish Education Census Shows Chabad Schools at 13% of Total Supplementary Schools” we reported that Chabad schools make up about 13% of all Jewish supplementary schools in the United States.

DaySchools
Student Body at Jewish Supplementary Schools

While this number looks impressive, if we count the student body at these schools, we get just 4% of American Jewish children at Chabad.

According to the report, three-quarters of all Chabad schools
have enrollments of fewer than 50 students. And nearly all Chabad schools enroll less than 100 students.

The report’s author, Jack Wertheimer, did not find this surprising. He cites the recent entry of Chabad into the supplementary school field as the reason for this finding.

You can access the full report here.

References:

Wertheimer, Jack. A Census of Jewish Supplementary Schools in the United States: 2006-2007. Avi Chai Foundation. August 2008: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=3529

Jewish Education Census Shows Chabad Schools at 13% of Total Supplementary Schools

In 2008, Jack Wertheimer presented data on “supplementary schools for Jewish education”. According to the report:

“For much of the past century, the large majority of American Jews receiving a Jewish education attended part time schools…. In the first half of the twentieth century, supplementary schooling was conducted mainly under the auspices of communal institutions. But by the middle of the century, the dispersal of Jews to suburbia and the explosive growth of synagogues brought an ever larger population of Jewish children into congregationally-based supplementary schools.”

DaySchools
Affiliation of Jewish Supplementary Schools

The study found that Chabad schools make up about 13% of all Jewish supplementary schools in the United States.

Wertheimer says that Chabad numbers are actually undercounted because “we are missing more data on Chabad schools than in any other category. The central office of Chabad claims to have information on the existence of 380 so-called Hebrew schools operating under its banner in the U.S. alone”. The study reported just 222 Chabad schools.

You can access the full report here.

References:

Wertheimer, Jack. A Census of Jewish Supplementary Schools in the United States: 2006-2007. Avi Chai Foundation. August 2008: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=3529