Liberal Rabbis Calling on Women To Take the Plunge for Ritual Purity

By Rebecca Spence

Published September 22, 2006, issue of September 22, 2006.
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Top leaders of Conservative Judaism are promoting a plan to encourage female congregants to plunge regularly into a ritual bath, following the adoption last week of rabbinic guidelines by the movement’s central lawmaking body.

At a September 13 meeting held in New York at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted to approve three opinion papers, or tshuvot, tackling what are traditionally known as the laws of “family purity.” The decision by the 25-member body of rabbis to endorse the varying opinions, each of which offers a slightly different take on the religious laws that require women to bathe each month in purifying waters, is the first time that the Conservative movement has made official its position on sexual relations between men and women following the completion of a woman’s menstrual cycle.

In a separate vote, the committee failed to pass an opinion requiring Jewish business owners to pay hourly workers a living wage and, when possible, to hire union workers (see story on Page 9 ).

Movement leaders said that in addition to passing opinions on use of the bath, or mikveh, they plan to distribute an educational booklet advising congregants on how best to adhere to Judaism’s rules on such matters.

The top-down push to encourage more women to participate in the ritual comes at a time when the movement is simultaneously poised to break with tradition and to approve the ordination of gay rabbis when the issue comes up for a vote in December.

As Conservative leaders have struggled in recent years to strike a balance between the stringent dictates of rabbinic and biblical law, or Halacha, and the realities of modern life, the movement’s stance on ritual immersion for women has emerged as a gray area. While the movement has seen an explosion in innovative mikveh use for healing purposes and for marking life-cycle events, only a small minority of Conservative congregants dips into the ritual waters regularly for the more traditional purpose of cleansing in preparation for physical intimacy.

The adoption of the opinions may be signaling that leaders of Conservative Judaism are ready to promote a stricter understanding of Halacha in many spheres, even as they liberalize in others, some observers said. The authors of the papers said that the sanctioning of their tshuvot represents the movement’s willingness to codify Jewish law on its own terms.

“It reflects more than anything the Conservative movement’s sense of comfort with itself as an authentic interpreter of the continuing evolution of Jewish law. And this is just one example,” said Rabbi Susan Grossman, who is the religious leader of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Md., and the author of one of the opinions.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — the movement’s congregational arm — expressed cautious optimism that more Conservative women would undergo the monthly ritual as a result of the efforts to expand awareness. But he also acknowledged that it would take time for the practice to become commonplace. “I don’t think it will happen overnight,” Epstein said. “As more people do it, more people will become aware of it.” The need for the tshuvot, he said, nevertheless arose following a groundswell of curiosity that sprang up from within the movement in recent years.

In interviews with the Forward, younger Conservative women concurred that the move was unlikely to inspire an immediate sea change. They said that while an interest in nontraditional mikveh use had, in fact, gripped their generation, few women would heed the call to go every month.

“I don’t think this means that all of a sudden it’s a watershed moment and the gates will come flying open as if it’s what everyone’s been waiting for,” said Naomi Less, 33, who is a vice president of programs at the Foundation for Jewish Camping and a founding member of Storahtelling, a New York-based theater troupe that promotes Jewish cultural literacy.

Rabbi Heather Altman, a Jewish spiritual director and yoga instructor who is a former rabbi at Chicago’s Anshe Emet Synagogue, where she is now a congregant, echoed Less’s view. Altman, 33, said that because Conservative Jews grew up with no role models of women going to mikveh, it would take far more than a rabbi giving a soon-to-be married couple a pamphlet to draw newly wed women to the ritual bath: “What needs to happen to attract people to mikveh would be a whole new approach to Jewish sexuality.”

The differences between the three papers adopted by the movement, though in some instances only subtle tweaks, reflect the broad spectrum of thought on how ancient traditions should be reconciled with contemporary norms.

Grossman’s paper, the most liberal of the triad, contends that the rules of mikveh as they are practiced today grew more out of folk custom than out of talmudic law. “Looking at it, I saw a difference between lore and law, and I saw a dichotomy about how rules of purity expanded around women but contracted around men” throughout the years, Grossman told the Forward. Moreover, Grossman said, the laws of “family purity” need to be shaken loose from ideas that have for centuries been used to bar women from fully participating in ceremonial observances. For example, she said, women being prohibited from touching the Torah can be attributed to “a very strong blood taboo.”

The rules of mikveh use as interpreted by Orthodox rabbis hold that a woman must abstain from sexual relations during menstruation as well as for the seven days after its ebb. For Grossman, that praxis is not only ungrounded in Jewish text, but, she contends in her paper, also poorly suited to modern life, in which both men and women routinely travel for work and may have only a few days each month to enjoy each other’s company. It is equally unrealistic, she writes in her opinion, for women facing the challenge of infertility.

The intricate parsing of the positions that took place at last week’s law committee meeting was punctuated by a harsh rebuke from Rabbi Gordon Tucker, who leads Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., and is a prominent liberal voice in the movement. Tucker raised a red flag over terminology, arguing that in calling the laws that govern adult sexuality the laws of “family purity” children were depicted unfairly as tainted if their parents did not choose to follow the regulations.

In response, Grossman proposed that the Conservative movement develop its own language surrounding the laws in lieu of simply adopting the terms used by Orthodox Jewry.

Yet another of the opinions passed by the committee, this one written by Rabbi Avram Reisner, religious leader of Baltimore’s Chevrei Tzedek, fell in close step with Grossman’s paper. Reisner’s opinion differed, however, in its treatment of male impurity, a subject that it roundly skirted.

“I don’t have that concern,” Reisner said, adding that while Grossman tried to move away from categorizing women as “pure” or “impure” based on their place in the menstrual cycle, he “accepted the biblical categories.” Reisner also said that there was a marked need for Conservative synagogues to build their own mikvehs.

Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz, a former student of Grossman’s who is now a writer and teacher in Boca Raton, Fla., drafted the most traditional opinion of the triumvirate. Berkowitz’s submission hewed to the line of Orthodox Judaism in which a woman must wait a full seven days before she is “pure” enough to engage in sexual relations with her partner.

Berkowitz is also writing a book on the laws of family purity that will include the range of views, presented, she said, “in simpler language.”

“The hope is that by making these laws more understandable and accessible, they’ll be much more observed.”

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