by Naomi Baine
My husband and I go to the mikveh together. It may not be common, but for us, it’s great. Here’s why.
We observe niddah, the practice of abstaining from sexual intimacy around the time of menstruation. The Torah forbids men from being intimate with women in a state of menstrual impurity (Leviticus 18:19). According to the medieval commentator Rambam, in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Biat Mikdash 3:1-5), the Torah also forbids men from going to the Temple after intimacy, which leads to a state of impurity (Numbers 5:2-4). According to a simple reading of the Torah, though, it would seem such men would have to leave the camp and stay on the outskirts of society until becoming pure. In other words, during Temple times, both men and women were responsible for ensuring ritual purity. This strict reading never became the rabbinic norm.
Nowadays, some Jewish circles, like the one I was raised in, disregard impurity for men since there’s no Temple, but still hold women responsible for ensuring purity in their intimacy with their husbands. It seems that in the male-dominated halakhic system (Jewish law), the men’s prohibition against sleeping with a wife in a state of niddah had to be accounted for. Unsurprisingly, a correlate prohibition for women to sleep with men in a state of impurity somehow never arose.*
This doesn’t work for me emotionally. I think there’s nothing more mutual than an intimate relationship. The monthly mikveh ritual made me feel owned rather than loved.
Then, on the practical side, there were the “mikveh ladies.” One made me dunk countless times because of my rather long hair, which, though I’m sure it was in the water (since no other attendant seemed to have this hang-up), made her anxious. Another repeatedly wished me good luck after I emerged each month. I’m not sure if that was about the presumed intimacy to follow or about that fact that I don’t have children as of yet, though my impression was that it was the former. Boundaries, people! And then there was the general culture — these ladies participated in a culture that would badmouth people like me for how I dress, supposedly revealingly. Yet they were all too happy to inspect every inch of my naked body for a single strand of hair or an invisible speck of nail polish, as if that should necessarily be a comfortable experience. And there was more in this vein, which I’d rather not share in a public forum.
Bodies tell stories. Stories of personal history. Stories of ongoing medical issues. Stories that shouldn’t have to be shared with whomever was on mikveh duty just because someone wants to use the mikveh. Even mikvehs that allowed for exceptions didn’t advertise that fact, and had a culture that made it uncomfortable for me to ask. None of this was in the spirit of the law, or even required by the strict letter of the law. For me, at best, mikveh has been an uninspiring errand to fit in each month. At worst, it’s been an anxiety-provoking and disrespectful invasion of privacy – mine and my marriage’s. Something to get through, or occasionally not, each month. The stringencies were ruining my ritual.
Until Barry and I found Mayyim Hayyim, a place that let us keep our own stories to ourselves. And let us make our purity, marriage, and intimacy experience fully shared and equal. The Torah felt each of us need a dip to be pure. For me, there was nothing better than to share it. And once we did, things like personal prayers in the mikveh became an option. Spiritual experience became an option. The mikveh is no longer a chore. It’s a date.
*For full transparency, there is Takkanat Ezra (Jewish legal rulings), which forbid men from praying or studying Torah while impure, but that was annulled as the general population couldn’t uphold the practice (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 22a). There are still some men who use the mikveh daily to this end. Still, the reasoning is not equitable.
Naomi Baine loves living in Rhode Island with her husband, Rabbi Barry Dolinger. She doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, but enjoys working as a speech-language pathologist in a public elementary school in the interim. She was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, and, for better or worse, loves to question everything, though not often out loud.