Friday, July 06, 2007

Mikveh Revisited

I have pretty radical views about mikveh* and the laws of family purity. I was in the car coming back from a sheva brachot* and we began to discuss the prevalence, or not, of the observance of the laws of family purity on the part of the Modern Orthodox.

I voiced my belief that women should start going to the mikveh when they first get their period. I understand that this screws with shmirat negiah*, and causes some other issues, but here's my reasoning:

1) Men have a coming-of-age ritual. Instead of co-opting theirs, or maybe in addition to, women should have their own. After all, girls get bat mitzvahed at 12 generally, in a nod to the fact that a) their fathers can no longer sell them, and b) they physically mature faster than boys.

2) Marriage is a random time to take on a new mitzvah. Your life is already changing a lot. We, or at least I, am able to keep rituals because they become, well ritual. I'm used to them, I don't see them as disruptive. If you start younger, at a more natural point (when the possibility for keeping the mitzvah starts) you are more likely to integrate it into your life, and keep doing it.

3) By explicitly tying mikveh to sexuality and marriage (which I understand that it is, really) it comes with all sorts of baggage about being "dirty" and "male oppression" and many other issues. If we can separate mikveh into two distinct parts, one being about coming of age and womanhood, and the other being about sexuality, I think that it would be easier for the modern woman to observe, or be comfortable with observing.

This brings me to my nex point. David Kelsey, of blog-crush fame, posted on Jewschool about the issue of bnei niddah*. Basically saying that people who become more religiously observant should be told that as their mothers did not (presumably) observe the laws of family purity, that they are considered unclean, or unmarriageable. This explains, in part, some of my popularity during my brief foray into frumster.

At any rate, I'm pretty sure that I heard the following at a shiur* a year or so ago, and I'd like to know if that is my crazy imagination, or if I really heard it. Amit seems to think that it's my crazy imagination, but I'd like a second opinion:

Some sources hold that a shower can be considered in place of mikveh for women who do not observe the laws. It isn't permissible to observe in this way, but it is acceptable b'di eved*. This would mean that really very few people are bnei niddah*.

*Mikveh is the ritual bath, there are a number of restrictions on what qualifies. According to the laws of family purity, a woman must immerse herself in the mikveh seven days after her period has finished before she can resume relations with her husband.

*Sheva brachot is Hebrew for seven blessings and refers to the seven days after a couple is married, during which time friends and family hold celebrations for them, and at each of these gatherings the seven blessings are recited.

*Shmirat negiah, to observe the touch, meaning observance of the laws governing physical relations between men and women. Practically means not touching any non-related member of the opposite sex. Except one's spouse.

*B'di Eved is a Talmudic term, meaning that while an action isn't acceptable if you set out to do it, it is an acceptable alternative if it has already happened. For instance, it is preferable to keep meat and milk separate, but if you drop some meat (less than 1/60th of the total) into a boiling pot of milk product, you can still eat it. That doesn't mean that you should go around adding in 1/60th meat to everything, just that if you mess it up, it is ok.

*B'nei niddah, children who were concieved by parents who did not observe the laws of family purity.

9 comments:

Liberal Jew said...

I really like your idea, very "reform" of you. The major issue that I think you will come into though with liberal and non-traditional Jews is that regardless of how you frame taking a ritual bath, it suggests that you are ritually unclean.

That is going to be a very hard sell for those who look towards logic before religion. (while that sounds smug, it was not supposed to be)

DK said...

What happened on Frumster exactly?

SaraK said...

Marriage is a random time to take on a new mitzvah. Your life is already changing a lot. We, or at least I, am able to keep rituals because they become, well ritual. I'm used to them, I don't see them as disruptive. If you start younger, at a more natural point (when the possibility for keeping the mitzvah starts) you are more likely to integrate it into your life, and keep doing it.

I never thought of that but it is a good point. However, for some reason, going to the mikvah is explicitly tied to marriage. A divorcee' or widow stops going to the mikvah (unless she remarries).

Annie said...

LJ- I'd say it is very modern orthodox of me. :) And I should have been clearer, I didn't mean that more liberal Jews would observe, I meant more traditional Jews would do so. There is no way to get around the fact that mikveh is about ritual impurity, and for some people that will always be a block.

DK- I got messages ONLY from bt black hat guys. Even though my profile said that I was very modern and only wanted to meet people who were too.

Sarak- the observance IS tied to marriage halakhically, but I don't think that that is necessarily the case. I think that women should go to the mikveh every month regardless of marital status.

Liberal Jew said...

Just as for some info and the fact that the Mikvah is making a bit of a come back for the liberal Jews
Reclaimin' the Mikvah

BZ said...

The major issue that I think you will come into though with liberal and non-traditional Jews is that regardless of how you frame taking a ritual bath, it suggests that you are ritually unclean.

We're ALL ritually unclean, with or without a mikvah (assuming we've ever been to a cemetery, or been somewhere that might have been a cemetery at some point, which rabbinically includes everywhere outside the land of Israel), and we're going to stay that way until we're sprinkled with water containing the ashes of the red cow. The reason people go to the mikvah before having sex isn't because of ritual purity (since the mikvah isn't going to help in that regard anyway); the issue is ervah (forbidden sexual relationships).

I.e., hilchot niddah as observed today are about Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18 (neither of which mention mikvah, but are understood by the rabbis to be about the same situation as Leviticus 15), not about Leviticus 15 per se.

The Autodidact said...

Thanks BZ - that needed to be clarified here.

Also, sarak, if we understand that mikvah/niddah is about sex, then it is pretty clear why rabbinically it is connected with marriage to such an extent that a widow would not go to the mikvah. These halachot are about making women permissible to their husbands. The widow "should not" need to be permissible to a man unless she remarries, so no mikvah.

I need to do some digging, but I remember learning that any rabbinic age limit on female immersion is relatively late, and is understood to have been enacted as younger, unmarried girls were immersing and then having sex.

Like Annie, I have always supported the notion of mikvah being something for all women, not just those who are married.

ClooJew said...

Translating Tamei into English proves difficult. "Unclean" is inaccurate. Even "ritually impure" is off the mark. I will, lulei demistafina, try to come up with a better term. Give me some time, kids.

BZ said...

Ok, but tum'ah (however you translate it) still isn't the issue at hand -- everyone here is tamei.