Just when I thought nothing more from the haredi world could shock me, after all that has transpired in the last year or so (women in a Jerusalem neighborhood being forced to walk on the opposite side of the street from men, rabbis issuing a new edict that women in Israel are supposed to ride only in the back of public buses), this recent took my breath away: A major decisor of Jewish law, Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, has ruled that women with braces on their teeth may not use the mikveh.
Now, to those who don’t observe the commandment to immerse in the mikveh, it may not seem like a big deal. Observant women immerse in the spiritually purifying ritual bath each month one week after their period has ended. But, as a liberal Jewish woman who has been observing the ritual — religiously, you might say, but with great ambivalence as well — it seems like a major development.
Not because I have braces, but because of the heartbreaking callousness and continued march toward radicalism at the expense of women’s wellbeing that this decision represents.
This article about the decision on Ynet explained it in some detail:
Braces on one’s teeth are considered a “partition” and therefore disqualify dipping in the ritual bath. A few weeks ago, an individual approached Rabbi Elyashiv in order to seek advice on whether orthodontic braces are considered to create a partition between women dipping in the mikvah after their menstrual cycle and the water… The ruling was made despite the fact that dipping in the mikvah is done with a closed mouth, and water would not touch the teeth in any case, braces or not. According to Elyashiv, the halacha also refers to partitions within the body, such that there is no significance to whether or not the teeth are actually being immersed in the water. The mikvah immersion of a woman with braces would therefore be disqualified, and she would not be able to have sexual relations with her husband, or even to come in any physical contact with him.
No adult would get braces because they look good, and it’s not a step undertaken lightly. They’re left in for months, sometimes years. And while an adult may get braces for cosmetic reasons, sometimes it’s for medical needs. It is expensive — take it from a mother who currently spends too much time at the orthodontist with her children — and conventional braces can’t be removed and re-attached.
While the Ynet article reports that one orthodontist serving the haredi community is offering removable braces, this doesn’t change the issue underlying Rabbi Elyashiv’s decision: concern that mikveh immersion is done completely correctly, with more concern for the immersion than the woman immersing. What of all the women who have immersed over the years with braces on their teeth? Were their immersions invalid?
As it is, I know personally that mikveh observance can become a crucible of anxiety and there are women for whom it spurs an obsessive level of compunction.
When preparing to immerse a woman must bathe and clean herself from head to toe and make sure that there is no chatzitzah, or barrier that would prevent the water of the mikveh from touching every part of her body – like a Band-Aid or nail polish, for instance.
For some women, and some mikveh attendants, the need to be 110% certain that no remnant of nail polish is hiding under the edge of a cuticle, and that no particle of mascara remains in the corner of the eye, leads to an incredible level of scrutiny and repeated efforts to dig in and flush out the offending material. It can be difficult to tolerate, and is testament to my stubborn nature that I’ve been going back despite being attacked by a Q-tip wielding mikveh lady.
All this being said, preparation and mikveh immersion can be a beautiful ritual. For me the mikveh has been a place to reflect and to leave behind the spiritual and emotional “impurities” that accumulate.
After a violent miscarriage, it was a place to leave my grief, allowing me to return home hopeful again (a hope that was, thank God, quickly fulfilled).
Immersing often allows me to return home with a clearer (purer?) mind and heart.
Is this what Rabbi Elyashiv is concerned with? Surely not. He seems concerned with the technical integrity of the way the mitzvah, the obligation, is fulfilled.
Me? I am more interested in the spiritual integrity.
I am not generally inclined to anxiety about scrupulousness. But a few months ago after I got home, I noticed a Band-Aid on the back of my upper arm which neither me nor my mikveh attendant had noticed. Panic began to rise in my chest. Did this invalidate the immersion? Did I need to get in a cab, late at night and quite exhausted already, and go back to re-immerse? Could I be with my husband that night or would I be doing something wrong? Then my rational self stepped in. I removed the bandage, reminded myself that my intentions were correct, and went on with my life.
There are a few resources for the thinking modern Jewish woman interested in mikveh observance.
Their Web site explains and illuminates answers to many questions. But for those who need more individual advice, the yoatzot have a telephone hotline. I’m just not comfortable discussing my questions with the rabbi in charge of the mikveh I use. (I’d worry he was visualizing things a little too clearly.) So I’ve gone to the yoatzot hotline and it has been a blessed relief to discuss my questions with knowledgeable women.
Still, I find it a growing challenge to set aside what seems to me to be a growing orientation toward anxiety about scrupulousness rather than kavannah and joy.
Unfortunately I don’t live near a mikveh in a Conservative synagogue and the closest community mikveh is too far for me to reach at night. Would that we had a local version of Mayyim Hayyim, a mikveh and educational center in Newton, Mass., which focuses on celebration and connection.
Perhaps those of us who are serious liberal Jews in Brooklyn will one day muster the will (and money) to create our own sanctuary for the living waters of mikveh.
Until then, the near obsession with punctiliousness reflected in Rabbi Elyashiv’s braces decision is the impediment to connecting with what should be a beautiful experience in the mikveh available to all Jewish women.