Mikve traumas

Too many women experience fear, anxiety, dread, resentment and even anger. Why?

Woman in bath 521 (photo credit: MCT)
Woman in bath 521
(photo credit: MCT)
A woman must strip off all her clothes and submerge herself in a ritual bath before she can have sex with her husband, according to Jewish law. This is a fairly straightforward, ancient Jewish custom adhered to for generations by devout women. (Mikvaot meeting the same legal strictures followed to this day were found on Masada.) But in our postmodern era in which religion and faith are options, not inescapable existential realities, it is a custom which carries with it intense emotions, not just – or even primarily – expectations of consummating sexual yearnings, but more commonly, fear, anxiety, dread, resentment and even anger.
This was the dominant theme of a conference organized last Wednesday night by Advot (Hebrew for “ripples”), an organization that promotes an atmosphere of open and critical female discourse on the custom of going to the mikve. The crowd was a decidedly liberal stream of Modern Orthodoxy – many of the women wore pants and covered their hair only partially, if at all. As one of the few males present (I had tagged along with my better half), I was given a peek at an aspect of a Jewish woman’s religious experiences that I had not, until then, fully grasped.
Women told of libido-dampening phenomena such as the prominent display of pictures of long-bearded rabbis on the walls of the mikve – as there is a Jewish superstition based on a Talmudic story that the first human image encountered by a woman upon coming out of the mikve makes an indelible impression on the baby-to-be; an abundance of hairs floating in the unclean waters; and the invasiveness of the mikve supervisor (balanit in Hebrew) who insists on checking every square inch of the prospective plunger’s body.
There were also issues of privacy. Attempts to hide from friends, family and neighbors one’s mikve plans cause the religious woman no small amount of stress.
Yet despite the openness of the discourse, commitment to the concept that a woman must, despite it all, immerse herself in a mikve went unquestioned.
Why did these women have such total commitment to Jewish law, when they could in theory choose not to? Was it taken for granted by the participants that this was God’s will? Was religious faith beside the point as is often the case in Judaism, which tends to emphasize praxis over belief? Clearly, it was a form of catharsis to be able to laugh together at semi-improvised skits performed by a theater troupe of three women who call themselves Katchkes (literally Yiddish for ducks or geese, but also a chauvinist metaphor for females’ “idle chatter” like the quacking of ducks), which portrayed women encountering obtuse mikve supervisors or struggling unsuccessfully to hide one’s evening plans to visit the mikve (and to engage in sexual intercourse) from friends, family or neighbors.
Like the small sense of relief felt by a person who suffers for years from dyslexia and is finally diagnosed, and realizes that his condition is shared by millions and that he is not after all mentally challenged, so too were these women relieved to know that they are not alone in their negative mikve experiences.
However, unlike a clinically diagnosed medical condition, religious women’s suffering is not the result of impersonal, objective factors. Rather, they suffer from the conscious acts of human beings – men and women – particularly those who claim to represent the Jewish religion. The present model for providing religious services is a large part of the problem. A decidedly reactionary-minded, male-dominated Chief Rabbinate monopolizes state funds set aside for the building and upkeep of about 1,000 mikvaot throughout the nation. Other than the need to appease the religious establishment’s desire for power and control, what sense does it make to place men of a particularly chauvinistic leaning in charge of institutions used primarily by women? In Efrat, a special women-only committee was established to deal with the upkeep of the mikve. But this is the exception to the rule, and it is quite extraordinary that the women of Efrat took such initiative. State-run monopolies tend to discourage personal initiative. Why should private citizens get involved, if the expectation is that the services provided – in this case religious services – are the state’s responsibility? Such involvement is the product of an exceptionally sensitive and open-minded rabbinate in Efrat, combined with a large Anglo population used to taking the initiative.
In too many towns, the religious figures who run mikvaot are insensitive to the needs of women. And often these insensitive religious clerks are females.
(Historically, one of the main obstacles to the liberation of women was what Marxists would call a “false consciousness,” a state of mind in which the reactionary sensibilities of the chauvinist male are internalized by the woman.) That a religious obligation should be made as easy as possible to perform is a foreign idea for too many religious functionaries connected to the Chief Rabbinate.
A woman’s willingness to stoically overcome all obstacles on her way to the mikve seems, in the eyes of some zealots, to actually enhance the religious act – as it proves one’s commitment.
The women who took part in the conference were a strikingly well-tempered bunch, considering the sorrowful conditions under which they persevere.
There was no talk of radical protest: burning mikve towels; boycotting the mikve (and abstaining from sex); picketing the Chief Rabbinate. These were relatively gentle souls. But as a male, I could not help thinking that a more aggressive, confrontational approach might be more effective in bringing about change. This point was particularly salient when the discussion turned to battered women.
One of the speakers at the conference, who works at the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center, spoke of how the mikve was the place where domestic abuse was often discovered. An attendant can, without an inordinate amount of sensitivity, perceive that a woman is involved in an abusive relationship – and not just by the bruises on the woman’s unclothed body. These women tend to tarry in the mikve, explained the speaker, fearing to go home to their violent husbands. They tend to be overly stringent, playing for time, pushing off as long as possible the inevitable dreaded rendezvous. The role of the attendant is to pick up on these signs and encourage the women to speak out.
The Rape Crisis Center, said the speaker, provides emotional and psychological support of various kinds, and can also offer these women shelter.
It seemed to me though, as a man, that a no less important service to abused women in such circumstances would be a gang of burly men with baseball bats willing to break a few kneecaps.
It would be misleading to claim that all was negative at the conference. There were some who spoke in praise of submerging oneself under water. One woman spoke so passionately about her experience at the mikve that it seemed to me she was really engaging in sublimation of the act itself.
“It [the mikve] was so perfectly round and smooth, and everything was so quiet. I went under the water and when I came up, I could not help myself. I began screaming ‘Miriam’s well, Miriam’s well!’ The supervisor said she would not be able to let me use it again. I made too much noise.”