How Did We Manage “to take out” Sex from the Mikveh?

Rahel Wasserfall

I was asked to write a blog as an anthropologist who had done work on Jewish Moroccan women, and to be personal and provocative, so here we go!  The first image that came to my mind, is that of Ruth, one of my informants who told me, in the 1980’s, that she would go to her moshav’s mikveh through roundabout routes, with her towel hidden under her clothes.  She did not want to be seen by her neighbors nor her children. She did not want them to infer the sexual connotations, obvious connotations in her culture that going to the mikveh meant preparing for sex with her husband on that night. Mikveh was hush, hush, she felt ashamed of the sexual connotations.

This is quite different from the ways Jewish American women are currently expressing pride in their relationship with the mikveh at Mayyim Hayyim. So, what has changed in thirty years?  The pervasive use of contraception!

For women like Ruth, mikveh was part of a system that ended the niddah process and where motherhood was the main identity for a woman. In Ruth’s system of thinking, Mikveh was to be used as a way to be cleared from her “monthly impurity,” so that she could again enjoy sex and become potentially a mother.

For many of the women who use Mayyim Hayyim today (not counting the women who adhere to the same system as Ruth), mikveh is not a door to renewed intercourse and pregnancy but it is more a venue to find oneself. It is a door to express our yearning for spirituality through a connection to an ancient Jewish tradition. Each generation of Jewish women has to live through the tension between persistence, (what is the Jewish way of dealing with one’s body and sexuality) and changes, (what are their needs concerning these laws and rituals). In the last 50 years women have embraced contraception and made motherhood a choice (for the lucky ones) and not a given.

By freeing our sexuality from fear of unwanted pregnancy we broke the inherent connection between womanhood and motherhood that Ruth experienced. In so doing, we liberated the mikveh from its inherent connections to the system of niddah.  We can reinvent mikveh and enjoy the possibilities of reclaiming it for our own needs. Mikveh has now also taken its place as a renewal/healing/marking ritual in our Jewish imagination.

Rahel Wasserfall is the principal at Educational Evaluation Advisors International. She is an anthropologist with a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who has wide experience in three different continents. She has widely published in the area of gender and is the editor of Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law (UPNE, 1999).  She also co-authored (with Susan Sevitz) a study on Jewish pluralism in a local Day School.  Rahel is also a committed yoga practitioner and teacher, having completed teacher training in the Iyengar tradition.

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About mayyimhayyim

Mayyim Hayyim is a 21st century creation, a mikveh rooted in ancient tradition, reinvented to serve the Jewish community of today
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One Response to How Did We Manage “to take out” Sex from the Mikveh?

  1. mindy says:

    I found this a great perspective on mikveh use. As a married woman in my forties, I can’t imagine the need to hide mikvah visits from other women. Sexuality is a loving expression of the covenant of marriage. Mikvah visits should be anticipated with pride rather than shame.

    While I certainly wouldn’t broadcast any appointment of a private nature, at the same time I wouldn’t hide it by taking a curcuitious route to the mikvah. I think we as women have the obligation to make keeping the mitzvah of taharat mispacha inviting and empowering if we want our daughters to follow our footsteps. If we give then a legacy of shame, they won’t follow the generations of women before them.

    In America for the better part of a centuary most womenn didn’t go to the mikvah. I know in my own community there ar 90000 jews and 120 women use our mikvah. There are three other mikvot, but even so that is a very small part of the community who participates.

    Give our daughters a gift that strengthens their marriages, they will continue our chain.

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