“These are the verses that try men’s souls.” Or better, these are the verses that pain the souls of numbers of serious Jewish women. I refer to Leviticus 12:2—5 in Parshat Tazri·a, and Leviticus 15:19—24 in Parshat Metzora. The first verses describe the laws regarding the days of a woman’s “uncleanness” (tum’ah) after giving birth to a child, which last twice as long if she gives birth to a female child. The second verses refer to the “impurity” of a menstruating woman (niddah). Anything she lies on or sits on becomes “unclean,” and any man who has sexual relations with her also becomes “unclean.” While almost all of the Torah’s impurity laws became obsolete after the destruction of the Temple, these laws, regarding postpartum and menstruating women, remain on the books. In looking at them as modern Jews who want to be faithful to our tradition, commentaries such as the following do nothing to ameliorate the problem:
“Rabbi Benjamin bar Yafet said in the name of Rabbi Eleazar: He who sanctifies himself [in his purpose] during sexual intercourse will have male children, as indicated by the fact that the verse ‘You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy’ (Lev. 11:44) is followed (12:2) by ‘When a woman at childbirth bears a male'” (B.T. Shevu’ot 18b).
Not only are women after childbirth and during menstruation to be considered “impure,” but — says this commentary — the only really desirable child is a boy!
Perhaps these verses and commentaries would not be so painful if the reality they reflect existed only in the distant past. But this is not true. Even in our Conservative communities, there are untold numbers of women who believe they are forbidden to touch or read from the Torah because they might make it impure (a belief which runs counter to Jewish law; Torah scrolls cannot become impure), and the anecdotal evidence for the continued prejudice for male children in today’s society is still painful to encounter.
And despite all this, there is a growing interest on the part of modern Jews of all persuasions in the laws of “family purity” (perhaps better named by Rabbi Susan Grossman — “Kedushat Yetzirah“, “the Sanctification of [God’s] Creation”), and in the use of the mikveh — the ritual immersion pool. The reasons vary, but Rabbi Grossman elucidates some of the salient ones:
- The traditional understanding that observance of these laws is good for a marriage — that absence from sexual intimacy for a specified time “makes the heart grow fonder.”
- A search for moral guideposts in our most intimate lives in a culture that has few moral rules.
- The search by women to re—appropriate, through redefinition and reinterpretation, ‘women’s mitzvot,’ both to link us to our foremothers and to celebrate the uniqueness of being a female member of the Covenant. In some instances, mikveh has been turned to as a symbol of healing and renewal, to mark the resumption of the potential for life after a miscarriage, to strengthen prayers for the ability to carry life in cases of infertility, holiness following rape, wholeness following a hysterectomy or mastectomy.” (Rabbi Susan Grossman, “Feminism, Midrash and Mikveh,” Conservative Judaism, Winter 1992).
An observance once seen by many as oppressive to women has become meaningful and sanctifying for others who have reinterpreted it.
Rabbi Einat Ramon writes that despite her aversion to the traditional interpretation of the mikveh, “the ancient observance of immersing in a source of living water [before marriage] was one that I very much wanted to keep.” She saw it as symbolic of purification and rebirth and marking an event in her spiritual lifecycle. (Rabbi Einat Ramon, “A Wedding in Israel as an Act of Tikkun Olam”, in Lifecycles, Vol. 1.)
As a congregational rabbi, I encouraged all of the couples I married to go to the mikveh beforehand, because — despite previous interpretations — I knew that mikveh could be a very special experience, one which marked the new journey the couple was about to make, one which celebrated the beauty and marvel of their God—given bodies, and one which sanctified the sexual intimacy of their soon to be formed union. I was delighted that many of the women (and men) decided to take on this mitzvah — seen in its new, positive light.
Many articles and books have been written on mikveh and the “family purity” laws. Much more could be said here. But let me end with an excerpt of a poem by Carol V. Davis (The Waters), which moved me — in the hopes that it will move you as well.
Nine months she was cushioned in the waters
and then the floodgates open
and the rush of birth.
Now, weeks later, I am compelled
to visit the mikveh.
Descending the four precise steps
to immersion, my feet sink
onto tiles concentrated as the waves
which lap at the Haifa shore.
What compels me to this act,
so bewildering to my husband?
Not just the commandment, but
the submersion and the chant of prayers.
To have a daughter:
This link to my grandmother
and hers, who, on some Petersburg side street,
entered a secret door and also walked
down four steps into the waters…
I remember a Hasidic tale of the Holocaust.
A rabbi was told to jump over an open pit.
If he made it, his life would be given to him.
Later he was asked by a nonbeliever,
How did you do it?
I was holding on to my ancestral merit, he said.
Holding on to the coattails of my father, and my
grandfather, and his father, of blessed memory.
As now, I place my daughter beside me and
descend alone the stairs to immersion.
And I see my mother, young and healthy, not
as in her last years, with eyes turned
inward by illness…
Her tenderness washes over me
as I immerse three times, saying the blessing.
And as I rise, it merges with the voice
of my doctor and the murmurs of my infant,
filling this room, seeping through the crevices,
drifting slowly up and up.