by Rabbi Pamela Jay Gottfried
I was delighted when Rabbi Joe Brodie, the Dean of Student Life and father figure to many of us at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), agreed to officiate at my wedding. I was also anxious. Like my future spouse, Joe was fairly traditional about ritual observance, and I was embarrassed to tell him how ambivalent I was about forgoing a veil and going to the mikveh. When I got up the nerve to discuss this with him, Joe wisely counseled me to research both matters thoroughly before making an informed decision. After considerable reflection, I concluded that I would not wear a veil but would observe the mitzvah (commandment) of monthly immersions. My research later became the foundation for my Master’s thesis about teaching the mikveh within the context of Conservative Jewish educational settings.
When we were first married, I was a student, my spouse was a post-doc and we lived beyond our means in NYC. We agreed to postpone having children until after my ordination. The mikveh attendant, however, gently rebuffed me when I tried to pay annual dues to the women’s club, which would have allowed me unlimited visits for the year. “God willing, you won’t be coming in a few months,” she told me.
The underlying implications of taharat ha-mishpahah (the laws of family purity) bothered me. Despite the best efforts of Jewish feminists such as Rachel Adler to reinterpret the rituals surrounding women’s use of the mikveh, and taking into consideration the egalitarian appropriation of the mikveh by some of my classmates and teachers at JTS, I couldn’t disregard the laws’ focus on women as wives and potential mothers. This seemed at best patronizing and, at worst, denigrating toward women; a legal designation by male rabbis to keep women in their proper place, subordinate to their husbands. I also resented the secrecy that surrounded the mikveh; the claim that immersing at night better suited the modesty of b’not yisrael (the daughters of Israel) instead underscored the rabbis’ discomfort with menstruation. Worst of all, my spouse and I were not enjoying the monthly honeymoon promised by Rabbi Meir in the Talmud. If anything, the pressure to reunite as if “first entering the huppah” was proving to be a deterrent.
During my first pregnancy, I was relieved to take a break from my monthly visits to the mikveh, and I looked forward to nursing my infant for at least a year, hoping to stave off the return of my previously regular cycle. No such luck: before my daughter turned two months, I was back at the ritual bath! But as my body returned to its pre-pregnancy self, I noticed that my feelings about mikveh had shifted. Caring for an infant and working full-time was draining, and the “me time” I enjoyed at the mikveh, if only for an hour each month, took on a sacred quality. I earnestly considered increasing from three to seven dunks, just to spend a few minutes more in the soothing water. Finally relaxed and revitalized by my monthly immersions, the promises of a better a sex life began to materialize, as well.
After my miscarriage, my relationship to the mikveh changed again, and it changed again when, after sixteen weeks of intermittent bleeding, I struggled to immerse my 21-week pregnant, buoyant body in the life-sustaining waters, the mayyim hayyim. Throughout my childbearing years, the one constant was my ever-changing connection to the mikveh. Now, facing the diagnosis of Perimenopause with medically regulated and infrequent periods, I find myself missing my monthly visits to the mikveh.
Recently, I needed to immerse for the first time in several months, and I was dreading the inconvenience of it all. But once I descended the mikveh steps, up to my neck in the water and poised to submerge, I felt calm and secure in my commitment to this mitzvah. And I feel certain that I’ll miss these opportunities for renewal of spirit when my body determines that I am again ineligible to be a member of the women’s club.
Pamela Jay Gottfried is a rabbi, parent, teacher and the author of Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom. An alumna of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders, Gottfried currently teaches in Atlanta, as well as blogs at Kveller.com and pamelagottfried.com.