As a Jewish woman living a traditional halachic life (governed by Jewish law), I am often faced with questions from myself and others regarding my religious choices. One question that will likely always come up is that of the place of women in halachic Judaism. In modern-day Orthodoxy, the synagogue has become the focus of religious practice. The synagogue is a place where women are placed behind a mechitzah (separation) as men lead daily prayer services. The basic expectation is that members of the synagogue practice the laws of kashrut, Shabbat, and Taharat HaMishpachah (keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and ritual family purity). While kashrut and Shabbat are practiced equally among men and women in the community, I find it empowering that the onus of ensuring the correct practice of Taharat HaMishpachah lies solely with women.
When I began learning the laws of Taharat HaMishpachah before my wedding, I felt overwhelmed and vulnerable, as many brides do. One line from the Talmud left me feeling shaken more than any of the other teachings I received on this subject. In Tractate Niddah, page 66a, Rabbi Zeira is quoted saying that, “the daughters of Israel were stringent upon themselves” with regards to Taharat HaMishpachah. Why would they do this? Why would the Jewish women of that time be stringent with laws that caused them to lose the flexibility of their time with their husbands? There are many plausible answers: that they gained more control over their bodies in a time when it was lacking, that the tradition had always been to be stringent, or perhaps that they didn’t know any better.
I researched and considered many answers to my question, but today I no longer care what motivated these dedicated women to make that choice. Instead I find myself inspired by their commitment. In a world where Jewish women are rarely deferred to as experts in halacha, Taharat HaMishpachah is a tool they use to exercise their halachic knowledge and responsibility. It is a mitzvah given to women, the responsibility of which is placed on women, the power of which is imbued onto women, and the sanctity of which is guarded by women.
Jewish women have been practicing this tradition for thousands of years. Tapping into the spiritual strength of the generations of women who came before me, immersing in the mikveh connects me to a lineage of individuals fiercely dedicated to Jewish life and law. The mikveh provides a unique opportunity for me, together with all Jewish women, to collectively empower ourselves through halachic responsibility to a core tenant of Jewish observance.
(*Mayyim Hayyim recognizes that people with varied relationships to gender and sexuality observe the laws of niddah and are welcome to immerse in our mikveh.)
One of Mayyim Hayyim’s Seven Principles is tzniut (modesty), dictating that we respect the privacy, modesty, and confidentiality of those who come to immerse. In alignment with this value, today’s guest writer has asked to remain anonymous.