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.

Education and Sharing Day: The Lubavitcher Rebbe Through The Eyes Of American Presidents

Education and Sharing Day: The Lubavitcher Rebbe Through The Eyes Of American Presidents

By Dovi Seldowitz

Among the interesting achievements of the Chabad movement has been the establishment of a rather peculiar annual political custom; for the past thirty odd years, the President of the United States has proclaimed Education and Sharing Day[1] on the calendar date corresponding to the Hebrew date of the eleventh of Nissan, the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The proclamation is not limited to party, both democrat and republican presidents have practiced this ritual. In fact, a number of these presidential proclamations accompanied congressional resolutions, signed by both Democrat and Republican representatives, making the recognition of the Rebbe’s one of those things the two parties can actually agree on.

A little known fact regarding this celebration is that the presidential proclamations on each successive Education and Sharing Day are not standardized. Each year, new statements are drafted for the sitting president, so, for the most part, no two proclamations will be exactly alike. Also, the themes emphasized by each president has varied somewhat. Even though the purpose of the day is to commemorate the Rebbe’s contribution and teachings regarding moral education and social responsibility, various other themes appear in the statements. Here are a small sample of the themes mentioned in various presidential proclamations:[2]

2015 – President Obama emphasized the Rebbe’s promotion of education for girls and women, noting that the Rebbe established a Jewish organization for women and directed his teachings of service and scholarship equally to young girls and boys, and quoting the Rebbe’s “there must be a girl” comment regarding educational materials that depicted only boys.
2007 – President George W. Bush noted the Rebbe’s request that society should “make a new commitment to kindness,” and that the Rebbe helped to establish education and outreach centers offering social service programs and humanitarian aid around the world.
2000 – President Clinton stated that the Rebbe’s understanding that both secular education and spiritual training contribute enormously to human development led him to provide young people with fresh opportunities for academic, social, and moral enrichment through the educational and social institutions he established, helping these young people develop into responsible and mature adults.
1992 – President George H. W. Bush stated that under the Rebbe’s leadership, members of the Lubavitch movement have worked to promote greater knowledge of Divine law, recognizing that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And that Lubavitch has promoted knowledge of the Biblical injunction to assist those who are needy.
1989-1990 – President Bush noted Chabad’s work in spreading knowledge of the Noahide Laws. The proclamation famously states that “Ethical values are the foundation for civilized society. A society that fails to recognize or adhere to them cannot endure. The principles of moral and ethical conduct that have formed the basis for all civilizations come to us, in part, from the centuries-old Seven Noahide Laws….”
1985 – President Reagan stated that the value which the Rebbe exemplifies is love: love of wisdom, love of our fellowman, and love of our Creator.
1978 – President Carter’s statement followed a congressional resolution mentioning the Rebbe’s call for a “year of education,” and includes a call for Americans to mark the day in “such manner as reflects their commitment to education and their recognition of its importance to the welfare of this Nation.”

Today, over thirty years since its inception, Education and Sharing Day is marked each year by the President of the United States, however, this day is not an event very well covered in the mainstream media. This may be due in part to its irregular commemoration, being that the Hebrew and English calendar dates are constantly in flux, or, for whatever reason, media outlets – and the general American public – have seemed to forgotten this single day on the American calendar dedicated to education. Notwithstanding the lack of this day’s public celebration among regular Americans, Education Day USA is a terrific milestone for a Chasidic group, numbering perhaps in the tens of thousands, whose leader has received this high level of attention from each American president since Jimmy Carter. As for years to come, we may expect the day to continued to be marked by unique presidential proclamations, commemorating both the Rebbe’s historic legacy as well as the concerns of the present day.

Footnotes:
[1] The day is officially titled “Education and Sharing Day, U.S.A.” though it was first titled “Education Day, U.S.A.” in 1978, and 1983 through 1991, but also called “National Day of Reflection” in 1982.
[2] See, “Proclamations: Presidents of the United States mark Education Day U.S.A.” Chabad.org.
http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/1167630/jewish/Proclamations.htm

Passover in Chabad: Personal Transformation and Social Acceptance

Passover in Chabad: Personal Transformation and Social Acceptance

By Dovi Seldowitz

Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Jewish People’s redemption from slavery in ancient Egypt, is heralded as a key Jewish festival for Jews world over. For many Jews, the Pesach Seder will be one of the only traditional Jewish events attended that year. Chabad teachings regarding Passover emphasize the message that the Jewish People’s transition from slavery to freedom is one that can be applied in one’s everyday life. Leaving Egypt (Yeztiat Mitzrayim) is understood as a human struggle to change oneself for the better, to force oneself to step beyond one’s comfort zone and strive to become a better person.[1]

Personal change is understood by sociologists as the exceptional cases in role theory. Sociologically speaking, one acts and identifies in a particular manner which is actually laid out by the society s/he lives in. To change one’s ordinary mode of behavior would require a concerted effort to change to the social setting allowing for a new form of behavior. Sociologists see personal change in terms of the individual striving to manipulate his or her personal affiliations to fortify the identities that had given him/her satisfaction in the past.[2]

What is interesting about Chabad is that transformative change is idealized and even celebrated each year, expressed in the form of the rabbinic tradition that “in each and every generation one must consider as if he or she personally left Egypt.” Chabad’s emphasis on personal transformation is reminiscent of the change sought after in psychoanalysis and other forms of therapy. In Chabad, while personal growth is advocated all year round, the message of change is especially resonant in the Chasidic teachings of Passover.

Chabad philosophy regarding personal development typically sees any change occurring as the result of the Chasid meditating on particular teachings and committing him/herself to acting in a different manner. Perhaps what is not entirely emphasized is how the Chasid plans on dealing with the social repercussions of such personal change. Can the individual’s intention to alter his or her behavior overcome the pressure exerted by his or her peers to continue acting as before?

The annual celebration of Passover in Chabad, replete with teachings of personal change and development, may assist the Chasid seeking to transform personal habits into more refined modes of behavior. A social recognition of a change imperative would allow those seeking to change to do so without the standard pressure of peer disapproval. One might find it easier to resolve to change when one’s peers generally accept that in this season one really ought to do so.

Footnotes:

[1] See for example, Eliyahu Touger, “The Exodus: An Experience of the Present As Well As the Past,” Timeless Patterns in Time, Sichos in English, 1993; Eliyahu Touger, “Sichos Shabbos Parshas Va’eira, Rosh Chodesh Shvat 5722,” Lekutei Sichot, Sichos in English, fn. 55.

[2] See, Peter L. Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 119-120.

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.

A Language Called Chabad: The Unique Expressions of the Chabad Movement

A Language Called Chabad: The Unique Expressions of the Chabad Movement

By Dovi Seldowitz

Chasidic communities are typically thought to consist of native Yiddish speakers whose English speaking skills are often somewhat limited. As the sociolinguists might have it, the Yiddish language is a tool for these groups to socialize their members, aligning them with the values of their community.[1] Chabad, by contrast, is known for a balanced bilingualism; speaking and writing in English is a non-issue in Chabad, the movement publishes its own Chasidic teachings in English, both as translations of existing works as well as original writings of English speaking authors. The fact that a Chabad community may speak English as a primary language does not mean they will speak in the same manner as the English speaking majority. It some sense, Chabad is actually a linguistic minority having developed their own peculiar speaking styles, often mixing in Yiddish and Hebrew words in their everyday talk.[2]

Social scientists have pointed out how ethnographic investigations of how language is used in various social groups is critical to providing a lens through which to view broader cultural processes.[3] Of particular interest is the phenomenon known as “code-switching”, using words from more than one language in a single sentence or conversation. Code-switching is frequently used by linguistic minorities to indicate group boundaries.[4] In Chabad, code-switching is used very often when indicating certain activities (outreach, celebratory, learning and identity) that have been shaped by the philosophy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Examples of words that Chabad Chasidim use in the Yiddish or Hebrew original (often with the claim that the word is difficult to render properly in English) are shlichus, hafotzo, mivtzoim (all referring to outreach), farbrengen, chag hageulah, y’mei d’pagra, (referring to Chasidic celebrations) ma’amer, sicha, igros, chitas (referring to Chasidic texts), hashpoa, bitul, and hiskashrus (referring to the Chasid’s identity and relationship to his/her rebbe).

For Chabad Chasidim, the teachings of Chabad philosophy, Jewish outreach activities and the individual relationship between Chasid and rebbe is of central, utmost importance. While other Chasidic communities utilize the Yiddish language as a socializing element, Chabad must rely on a hybrid linguistic form to help establish and maintain the unique Chabad identity. A Chabad Chasid might translate ordinary Hebrew words quite easily, but words that are uniquely Chabad (“Chabadisms”) must remain pure and unadulterated, attesting to the significance these ideas occupy in the minds and hearts of the Chabad community.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Ayala Fader, “Literacy, bilingualism, and gender in a Hasidic community.” Linguistics and Education 12, no. 3 (2001): 261-283.

[2] See for example, Sarah Bunin Benor, “The learned/t: phonological variation in Orthodox Jewish English.” University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 7, no. 3 (2001): 2.

[3] See, Fairclough, Norman, Jane Mulderrig, and Ruth Wodak. “Critical discourse analysis.” Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction, Teun A Van Dijk, ed., SAGE (2011): 357-378.

[4] See, Monica Heller, ed. Codeswitching: Anthropological and Sociolinguistic Perspectives, Vol. 48, Walter de Gruyter, 1988; Monica Heller, Linguistic Minorities and Modernity: A Sociolinguistic Ethnography. A&C Black, 2006.

#Chabadisms

Chabad and Technology: A Complimentary Mix

Chabad and Technology: A Complimentary Mix

By Dovi Seldowitz

In contrast to other Chasidic groups, Chabad is noted for their remarkable use of technology in documenting Chabad Chasidic life and for the purpose of Jewish outreach. Other Chasidic communities have shunned technological advances, believing they allow a secular world to easily penetrate their community and undermine communal values, to some extent, these Chasidim believe that certain technological innovations are inherently evil, by contrast, Chabad has viewed these innovations as mere tools to be utilized in any number of ways. The advanced capabilities of communication technology (radio, television and the internet) as new opportunities to spread the message of Chasidism.

Chabad appears to have a dual focus in using technology, both concerns have long been in use in the Chabad movement since the arrival of the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, to the United States. Chabad has utilized technology for both “insider” (internal) and “outsider” (external) purposes. Internally, for the Chabad community, technology has been used to preserve historical moments for the movement and the public sermons of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Externally, Chabad uses technology for disseminating Chasidic and general Jewish teachings as well as for increasing public awareness of Judaism and Jewish practice.

Examples of Chabad’s internal uses of technology include photographs and video recordings of the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, and the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, as well as photographs and recordings documenting contemporary Chabad culture (weddings, community events, etc.). Videos of the Rebbe have acquired something of a central pillar in Chabad culture; “Rebbe videos” are frequently played in schools, synagogues and at public events. Websites, both by the Chabad movement as well as those independently run, allow Chabad culture to be accessible in the internet age. Additionally, mainstream social media sites have allowed Chabad communities to connect online; today, individual Chasidim may keep in touch with one another, wherever they may live. Examples of Chabad’s external uses of technology include publications in newsletter and magazine forms, radio and television broadcasts, satellite transmissions and websites to spread Chabad’s message of Jewish awareness and practice. Social media plays an important role in getting those messages into the public sphere.

A number of Jewish sociologists and social scientists have studied Chabad’s use of technology, noting the unique combination of a traditional Jewish group utilizing the latest technological innovations for preserving Chabad culture and spreading Judaism.[1] Although some have thought that the institutional use of the internet by Chabad organizations is primarily performed in order to disseminate information on Chabad and Judaism rather than create an online community. The internet is, for Chabad, a temporary space designed to bring Jews together and encourage them to seek out in-person encounters with Chabad shluchim.[2] Whether this assessment is entirely accurate or not, it proposes that some underlying tensions still exist in the way Chabad uses technology.

Chabad’s use of technology, both for internal and external use, set it apart from other Chasidic groups that have frequently shunned advanced communication technologies. The Chabad movement’s ability to increase awareness of Jewish practices have been undeniably enhanced by its use of a range of technologies. And while some maintain that certain tensions still exist in Chabad’s relationship to technology, one cannot deny that the impact of radio, video and the internet has changed Chabad both inside and out.

Footnotes:

[1] For sources on Chabad and technology, see, Jeffrey Shandler, “The virtual Rebbe,” Jews, God, and Videotape: Religion and Media in America. NYU Press, 2009; Maya Balakirsky Katz, The Visual Culture of Chabad. Cambridge University Press, 2010; Oren Golan, “12 Charting frontiers of online religious communities.” Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Heidi A. Campbell, ed., Routledge (2012): 155; Sharrona Pearl, “Exceptions to the Rule: Chabad-Lubavitch and the Digital Sphere.” Journal of Media and Religion 13, no. 3 (2014): 123-137.

[2] See, Pearl (2014).

A Chabad Standard: Scholarship, Publishing and Community Interest

A Chabad Standard: Scholarship, Publishing and Community Interest

By Dovi Seldowitz

Chasidic culture is often conceived as one filled with romanticized portraits of saintly men, impoverished Chasidim and the miracles they’ve experienced. Chabad, however, is known as the more cerebral group; the very name of the movement refers to intellectual traits. And while Chabad also celebrates storytelling, it is very much secondary to its scholarly and intellectual tradition. The Chabad movement has set a high standard among Orthodox communities in publishing scholarly works; Chabad also can attest to high community interest and involvement in advancing scholarship at a range of levels.

As compared with other Chasidic movements, Chabad’s approach to scholarship includes some fairly unique elements; its focus on critical historiography and publication history, and publishing scholarly journals with contributions from local students and community members. The corpus of Chabad works available today would not be readily available today if not for the work of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who insisted on publishing all manuscripts of earlier Chabad rebbes in a professional manner, producing well-made and aesthetically pleasing literary works.[1]

Chabad’s awareness of the need to preserve and study its own history has developed beyond the hagiographical tendencies commonplace in religious movements. It would be understandable for any movement, Chasidic or not, to focus on storytelling incorporating moral lessons over critical history. And yet, Chabad has published works in the spirit of critical academic scholarship. Examples of such works include the books and articles by the late Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshine (1947-2014),[2] as well as the volumes put forth by Chabad librarians on the history of the Chabad movement in Russia, Israel and the United States.[3]

Storytelling and narrative are popular topics of study for sociologists and other social scientists,[4] although these forms of social history have to be interpreted by the researcher leading earlier sociologists to entirely reject the analysis of narratives as it would lead to inconclusive assessments of the subject matter.[5] But while storytelling and narrative is common to all groups, it is not common for a group to exert considerable effort in a critical self-assessment. Critical scholarship is popular in Chabad, not only among the movement’s deep thinkers but even among the laity. Chabad communities worldwide have published scholarly journals consisting of the contributions of community members and local yeshiva students. Consistent with Chabad’s “bottom up” approach, the quality of the journal content varies greatly, reflecting the real interests taken up by the members of that particular Chabad community.

What is so unique about Chabad scholarship? It is both professional and amateur, geared to scholars as well as community driven, it focuses on a range of religious and historiographic topics. Chabad writings are also aimed at being accessible to the public, with a wealth of material found in print and online. Chabad certainly lives up to its name as the intellectual Chasidic group, where scholarship and publishing are central features of the movement’s legacy.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Don Seeman, “Publishing Godliness: The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Other Revolution,” Jewish Review of Books, July 16, 2014.

[2] See, Israel Bartal, “True Knowledge and Wisdom: On Orthodox Historiography,” Studies in Contemporary Jewry: Volume 10, (1994): 178-192.

[3] See, “New Volume on Chabad History Published,” Lubavitch.com, September 21, 2010.

[4] See for example, Francesca Polletta, Pang Ching Bobby Chen, Beth Gharrity Gardner and Alice Motes, “The sociology of storytelling.” Annual Review of Sociology 37 (2011): 109-130.

[5] See, Patricia Ewick and Susan S. Silbey, “Subversive stories and hegemonic tales: Toward a sociology of narrative.” Law and Society Review (1995): 197-226.