The mikveh attendant in a town where I often visit but do not live was always the same: towheaded, horsy wig, vast muumuu, thick accent and brusque, brusque, brusque. Her job was to assist women preparing for ritual immersion in observance of the ambitiously named Laws of Family Purity. Assistance is necessary because these laws, developed in the Talmud and later in legal codes, demand that nothing at all intervene between the water and the person immersing, including stray hairs or tiny dirt particles. Just before one descends into the mikveh — a small pool that must hold at least 80 gallons of water (some of it rainwater) — the attendant inspects hands, feet and back. Coming under this particular woman’s scrutiny felt like solving a long-division problem at the chalkboard in front of the entire third grade: Something small but important was bound to be wrong, and humiliation would surely ensue.
But one night her countenance, her manner, her whole person was different. Sure, there was the same capacious muumuu and outrageous accent, but they charmed. Even without my eyeglasses, I could see that a neatly crocheted snood had replaced the equine wig. She took each of my hands gently in hers to check the fingernails, and with tactful rapidity declared my back “vey gut.” Entering the water, I coiled my hair in one hand and wet it before my first dunking (most Ashkenazic women immerse three times in a row) so that no dry strand would float to the surface. When the attendant complimented me on this technique (“ees gut idee”), I was shocked. Praising my form? I beamed, sure that I’d finally penetrated her inner circle; after years of proving myself, she would be kind to me. I was in.
Evidently I wasn’t the only myopic woman to be so pleasantly surprised that night. When I was back in my dressing room after immersing, the thin walls admitted her chiming voice, mingled with that of the next patron. Since she was just as buoyant as she’d been with me, I thought some excellent thing must have come into her life and transformed her from Eeyore to Pooh. “I really like your snood, Mrs. Silverstein,” the other woman said, probably while holding out her hands for inspection. “You mek mistek. I not Meesehs Silvehstein,” the attendant crowed. “I seestah, Meesehs Goldstein!” The next month, Meesehs Silvehstein was back, frowning.
For us Orthodox Jewish feminists (and even for our sisters who asseverate that they are not feminists), the family purity laws are probably the bitterest pill the religion asks us to swallow. They enjoin husband and wife from any physical contact from the onset of menstruation until after immersion, an interval usually lasting about two weeks, since a woman counts seven “clean” days between the end of bleeding and immersion. During this time, she is considered niddah, a term whose translation varies from the anemically neutral (“set apart”) to the inflammatory (“outcast”), depending on who is doing the translating and why. The vocabulary associated with this area of Jewish law — impurity, defilement, stain — is achingly dark and primitive. Having somehow come to grips with the language or decided to ignore it, there’s still the experience itself, which ranges from sorrowful — the lack of even the most casual affection with one’s spouse — to potentially humiliating: the involvement of a rabbinic authority when a stain of uncertain significance sullies one’s underwear.
Although these laws quickly become second nature, most couples who plan to observe them learn their intricacies only a few weeks before the wedding, when the bride attends a kallah (bridal) class. My friend Deena and I took public transportation to reach our kallah class with the attendant at the local mikveh. Early in the course, I plunked myself heedlessly on a train station bench, landing in the icky, sticky puddle — it was even red! — of someone’s abandoned drink. It was too late to go back and change, so I endured the rest of the day in my stained, stiffened skirt. Vaguely shameful and manifestly uncomfortable, the situation seemed like a portent of how it would feel to live within the niddah laws.
Perhaps because of all this starkness, Jews ranging from traditional Lithuanian legalists to New Agey spiritualists try to make the best of family purity. On Web sites and PBS specials, and in books with such celebratory titles as “The Secret of Jewish Femininity,” they laud the system as a marital passion preserver. They emphasize the sexual benefits of regular parting and reunion, welcome the period of physical separation as a woman’s “time to herself,” or revel in the mystical or curative properties of water. And, I hasten to add, I have found some of these claims to be true enough. But what if the rhetorical burnishing threatens to rub out essential aspects of the experience of niddah and mikveh? Two maneuvers are especially disquieting: the tendency to present the passage from tum’ah (ritual impurity) to taharah (ritual purity) as a profound personal transformation, and the related propensity to dissertate on purity while largely ignoring impurity.
“I not Meesehs Silvehstein”: I can’t think it entirely coincidental that this case of mistaken identity occurred at the mikveh. The episode underscored the fact that immersion effects transformation that is ritual, not personal. No alchemy can transmute silver into gold, or Silverstein into Goldstein. Rather, the mikveh is about achieving hope and holiness in the face of continuing human imperfection.
The ancient rabbinic sages knew this well. In a midrash aimed at the reflective days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they contrast the sea with the mikveh, comparing these two venues for ritual immersion to repentance and prayer, respectively. Just as either body of water — the unfathomable natural one or the humbler man-made one — can cleanse one of ritual impurity, so can either penitence or prayer atone for sin. But there are some key differences. Like an Internet retailer, the sea is always open, whereas the mikveh maintains strict hours. And ironically, as the rabbis point out, the public seaside offers more privacy than the cloistered ritual bath: One is liable to run into a parent or teacher at the mikveh, but one can always just mosey a little farther down the beach.
Since some of the most frustrating moments of my married life have had to do with the mikveh’s opening and closing, the ocean sounds like a pretty good deal. Marine immersion means never having to time a taxi’s arrival just as the mikveh doors open, never pulling up late to find a crowded waiting room, and never getting there early and having to wait outside, where evening prayers have just released a stream of men from the synagogue that always seems to be right next door. But unfortunately I don’t happen to live near a secluded beach, let alone a warm one.
Perhaps the Jewish utopia is a private stretch of temperate Mediterranean beachfront, but the Jewish reality is the mikveh. Although the rabbis intended a paean to repentance, to the sea, to spontaneous and inward religious experience, I think that we might benefit more by reading this insightful little midrash backward, in praise of the mikveh.
Today, at least among intellectuals, it is fashionable to seek spirituality but eschew religion. Embracing the mikveh over the sea means reconciling oneself to the religious opportunity that does close — to rules and limitations instead of free-form spiritual experience.
And a further reality is represented by the mikveh: our interdependence. In the best of circumstances, this most private of rites involves others (the attendant, maybe a cabbie), and in the worst, a rabbinic authority that can seem prying, no matter how sensitively exercised. The laws of family purity bring the rabbis and their 5-foot shelf of responsa literature into one’s very bedroom, offering them a courtside seat next to the bed (or between two beds, as it were). Among those who use the mikveh, a strict code of discretion obtains to protect each other’s privacy. We need each other, just as we do for the three-ring circus that Jewish communal prayer can be. A synagogue is not a Zen retreat, where worshippers have been conveniently stripped of their flashy clothes, loud family members and annoying tics. In synagogues, there is whispering and nose blowing, there are loud clothes and louder children.
In fact, though, today’s quandary is not where to immerse but whether to immerse; that is, a rigorous engagement with the laws of purity and impurity — no matter how grudging or fractious that engagement — versus none at all. So I extend my claim for a reality principle from the mikveh specifically to the niddah laws generally. Traditional cultures — and rabbinic Judaism is no exception — associate impurity with mortality, and their rites of purification manifest the instinctive human recoil from death. The lived experience of impurity brings us into palpable contact with all that is painful and ineluctable. Being niddah is awful, but not because the rabbis were odious misogynists who reviled women’s bodies. It is awful because it is a cyclical reminder of, an uncomfortable tickler file for, the very existence of taint, death, pain and sorrow.
I resist the temptation to tame mikveh and the niddah laws into any easy framework of meaning. Separation, immersion and reunion constitute a cycle of stark, sacramental experiences that have more to do with feeling than with thinking. The observance of these laws oughtn’t be overly prettified with the language of renewal or cleansing or self-transcendence; those qualities are all present, but precisely in balance and tension with their polar opposites. Without impurity, purity is meaningless. Of course we aspire to purity — of heart and body both. We hope for renewal, for transformation, for perfection. But if you think we count on it, if you think there’s no backup plan in the form of the mikveh, you mek beeg mistek.
Miriam Udel-Lambert is completing a doctorate in comparative literature at Harvard University. Her collection of essays about religious feminism will be published by Trumpeter in 2008.