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Mama Deb
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Mama Deb [userpic]
Mikveh and journeys

kassrachel wrote a report about her recent retreat, which generated a discussion about mikveh and their feelings about it. This is something I dealt with in the beginning of my married life and is now an integral part of it, and so, this is my own journey.

I wasn't raised religious at all. My parents were very much aware they were Jewish, and tried to ingrain that in their kids, but they did only the vaguest of practices - we sometimes had an electric menorah for Chanukah, when we remembered, and one night of latkes because my dad loved them, and we always did *something* for Passover. Not that we cleaned or had a seder or anything, but we did have a meal and we did drink wine with it. Awful, extra sweet syrupy stuff we drank in my mom's good crystal with selzer and ice cubes, but wine nevertheless. And two of my brothers went to Hebrew school. My oldest didn't because he's severely autistic; I didn't because my dad didn't believe in bas mitzvah celebrations, and what was the point of going to Hebrew school without the party?

I guess we could ask my younger brother, as he never had one. And he's also completely turned off of Judaism.

Given this background, I don't think anyone would be surprised to find that I never heard of going to mikveh until fairly late. My mother never went at all, and I have a feeling my grandmothers went *once*, just before their weddings. I knew Orthodox men didn't touch women because of their periods (misconception #1) and that women having their periods were considered dirty (yes and no.)

That's all I knew until I read a book called The Physician when I was in college. In brief, an 11th C English barber-surgeon (preConquest) disguises himself as a Jew so that he can attend a Persian medical school and get the best training available. This school would not take Christians. He travels part of the way with a Jewish party in a caravan, and at one point, he talks about husbands complaining because their wives are currently unavailable for sex. But, see, this was almost a thousand years ago. Surely no one did *that* anymore.

And that's where it stood until I started going out with observant men, and started reading. And, yes, I was offended by the idea of being "unclean". Messy, yes, but unclean? Ick. How primitive and sexist and awful, and nothing Blu Greenberg could say would make me feel much different. And the apologetics my Lubavitch cousin gave me prior to my wedding didn't help. "It'll improve your marriage." "If you take "ish" (man) and "isha" (woman) and remove the "hey" and the "vav", which is Gd, you're left with "eish", which is fire."

That last still makes me cringe.

I determined that I'd go before my wedding, which was to be an Orthodox one officiated by my cousin who heads a yeshiva in Israel, but not again. My husband thought this was quite fair, as he also thought the idea was sexist and old fashioned and "we have a bathtub, so why go to this awful place", and to make it even more fair, he'd go himself on the morning of the wedding. He grew up with the story of how his mother searched until she found an Orthodox synagogue that would let her get married without dunking first. Oddly enough, *she* told me *not* to say "never", because I had no idea how I would think in the future. She herself has still never gone. (And the current rabbi of that synagogue would *never* allow that now.)

So, what happened?

I grew. I started learning Hebrew, from the aleph bet. I started reading books on the subject, and as I did, I thought about what they were teaching me, weeding out what I thought were (and in many cases still are) reasons that didn't apply to me or didn't make real world sense. And by the end of the first year, my body gave me signals I could not ignore, and I began to go, grateful to my mother-in-law for her wise words.

It wasn't a major hardship - my cycles at that point were months long, so two weeks off were only a minor annoyance, and all we basically did was abstain from sex during those weeks, and I found the experience itself pleasant. Not intensely spiritual, mind you - but taking a long bath and shower, grooming my nails and my hair, spending an hour on just preparation - these were just nice. So was knowing I wouldn't have to clean up afterwards. And the dunkage itself was just fine. Extra benefit - the long soaking makes my skin extremely soft.

Meanwhile, I dealt with issues such as tumah and tahara and how it applies to women and niddah and so on. I took classes, I read books, my husband and I had special sessions with a rabbi to make up for the bride and groom classes we never took, not expecting to need them. He gave us a book that *wasn't* goopy on the subject, which helped a lot.

This is what I learned about tumah and tahara. There is no stigma attached to tumah. A Torah scroll is tamei, yet it is the holiest thing we have right now. Taking care of the dead renders one tamei and yet it's a tremendous mitzvah. When a man ejaculates, he becomes tamei, and yet having sex and reproducing are also mitzvot.

A woman becomes tamei upon having her period because prior to having her period, there was the possibility that she was pregnant, or could become pregnant. She had the highest level a human being could have - she could create life. This is *Gdlike*. But now, she can't. She missed her chance, or was unable to take it. Now she's on a lower level - the same level, actually, as a man, who cannot create life within him. This change of state makes her tamei - if a woman never ovulates and never has a period, so she never reaches and then loses the potential to create life, she never become tamei in that way. (Also, any discharge makes one tamei, which is why ejaculation makes men tamei.)

This is not an apologetic. In former times, when we had a Temple and the ashes of the Red Heifer (the answer, btw, to finding a Kohen Gadol to do this is to use a thirteen year old boy. Children don't become tamei.), and ritual purity was of more importance, a menstruating woman had to be careful of where she sat and what she touched and even the food she cooked. We're not sure how they managed it. We just know there was no tradition of a menstrual hut. These days, the only thing she has to worry about is touching her husband, or performing other intimate services such as serving him food. (Think about Blair in that breakfast scene, dishing up eggs for Jim. Very intimate.) She can still touch/hug her male relatives, and while she and her husband cannot share a bed, it's for intimacy reasons.

We're not always good with that last, either. :)

This is all very nice and beautiful and all, except I'm infertile. And have known this, really, since before I got married, and had it driven home afterwards. You can't have a period only three times a year, or fewer, and not know this. We were calling them my "occasionals" because they were not periodic. Turns out, I did not ovulate without medical intervention. So I never actually entered this state of potential on my own.

And the infertility treatments only made things harder, as lupron made me bleed just slightly for weeks, and only luck made it possible for me to go to mikveh before the actual IVF's, and it did feel rather cleansing to go after they all failed - the first thing that happens after a failed IVF, once you stop getting the progesterone, is that you get a period.

So, where do I stand now? I don't feel demeaned. That's a start. I don't feel contaminated, which is a good thing because that's a very loaded word for me. I know my husband wants and craves my touch, as I want his. I do occasionally feel messy, but don't we all? Sometimes, it *is* a spiritual experience, as I visualize the tumah washing away in the waters of the mikveh, especially if I can feel the water from the bor, from the living waters themselves. There's a tremendous feeling of connection with all the women before me, even if my own chain broke two generations back.

And sometimes it's just a practical thing I do because I have to. No one can feel spiritual all the time. Sometimes, as with this vacation, it's annoying. And that's just the dipping part.

The hardest part is the no touching part. On the one hand, it does foster communication between us. On the other, we fight a lot. We had two today. Also, the coming together afterwards is wonderful - that first kiss *feels* like a first kiss, because we have to remind ourselves that we can. But you can get very starved for contact, and we're not very good about it yet. I have a feeling it's easier for those raised in this lifestyle, for whom it's the permission to touch that's the new part, not the prohibition from touching.

Another part is that I come out of it with a positive image of my body. Yes, I'm very overweight and lumpy and my measurements make me into a cylinder, not an hour glass, but I spend two weeks of every cycle making sure my husband does not see me undressed, and not because the sight of me would be disgusting to him, but so that he doesn't become aroused. This is law, but it's also true. And after spending two weeks thinking of my body in that way, it stays - I know how I look, but if he likes it, it's *good*. It feels good. I found this out by accident - a day or two after dunking, I took a quiz for fat women about body image, and I found I kept answering positively, which was very weird. I dress according to the laws of modesty anyway, and I think that might help, too - I'm covering something precious, not something ugly. Sometimes I believe that, and one of those times is post mikveh - especially when my husband's eyes just light up.

I'm not sure this helped anyone, but it's what my journey was.


Thank you so much for posting this; I not only enjoyed reading it, but also found it meaningful.

I continue to have mixed feelings about niddah where my own body/marriage/situation is concerned, but I liked getting the bird's-eye view of your journey. I have heard from others also that abstaining from touch two weeks out of the month makes the reunions all the sweeter, and I believe that; my husband travels a lot, often for two and three weeks at a time, and it's always both nerve-wracking and wonderful when he gets home and we're finally in the same room again.

The religion-scholar part of my brain can analyze questions of what-makes-one-tamei and be fascinated. My brain can engage with the tradition, for sure.

But the part of me that *feels* religion instead of thinking about it...just isn't there, at this point. I can imagine what it would feel like to express the thoughts you've expressed, but can't actually feel them.

I won't say "never," of course; but that's not the path I see myself on, at this point. //shrug// Regardless, I've always had family and friends who engage with Judaism in a wide variety of ways, and hearing about paths like yours continues to enrich my perspective, so thanks for posting.

*nod* Let me preface my response by also saying "thanks." I don't know any observant women well enough to ask them about this, and your take is really interesting. ;) Also -- I thought the Kohen Gadol problem revolved around not only wanting the KG to be tahor, but wanting the entire lineage of the KG to be tahor. The KG, after all, was never supposed to deal with a dead body. But I only know this at third-hand, so I could be confusing things. Now, back to niddah....

I'll say "never." This is me, saying never. Ever. For sure. (I mean, what's the worst that can happen? I feel embarrassed some years from now? ;) The part that makes me say "never" isn't the mikvah itself; I kind of like that idea, and I wouldn't half mind doing it before my wedding, and monthly after my period ends. (People would look at me funny if I tried to do it now, though, right? Since I'm unmarried? So I'm supposed to be permanently tamei until I'm married, because that's really all that matters? Ergh.) I'm more than capable of intellectualizing the business of what it means to be tamei and shaping it into something I can live with. Come to think of it, I could easily live without having wild monkey sex during my period; all other things being equal, that's not the time of the month when I most want to dance the horizontal hora. However. The not sleeping together? Nope. The other forms of "avoiding intimacy"? Nope. The seven "white days"? No way in Gehenna (although, as a modern Reform Jew, I'm supposed to have conveniently forgotten about that). There's the practical side of this -- I've been in long-distance relationships, and my current lifestyle would fit nicely into a convent, but I much prefer not institutionalizing abstinence for two weeks a month. What really resonates for me, however, is the conceptual side. Do you see men going to dip in the mikvah after touching the Torah scroll? Do you see them avoiding the Torah scroll? Do you see the rabbis enacting hedge after hedge around the laws pertaining to touching the Torah scroll until there's a veritable English formal garden around it? Do you see a couple thousand years of nasty stories about how the Torah scroll went and messed in something it shouldn't and a lot of bad juju went down? (Okay, the comparison is slipping. Still, there are quite a few Jewish stories I know -- and this isn't my field of expertise, either -- which center around menstruating women touching some sort of powerful religious doohickey, and the doohickey reacting with semi-apocalyptic annoyance. There's not a comparable body of stories -- no doubt there are one or two -- about men who've had nocturnal emissions, which is the closest real equivalent.) I don't see the point of the white days, or of avoiding cuddling during my period; I don't see why I need to go to so very much more trouble than a man who's had a nocturnal emission, especially since I have (a) no real choice in having my period every month (short of going on some heavy-duty hormonal birth control) and (b) no interest in feeling ashamed or disgusted, both of which emotions clearly show through in the accumulated halakhic discussions of the laws of niddah. I don't see why all the responsibility should be on me rather than my husband, who helps precipitate this whole chain of ceremony by marrying me. Right now -- and this is subject to revision, of course -- I suspect that I'd want both of us to dunk before the wedding and monthly after each of my periods. During which, incidentally, he is going to be totally responsible for bringing me whatever I want to help with cramps. ;)

So much to answer, and LJ doesn't like long answers. :)

All I can say is, we began by not worrying about the fences (except for the seven day thing) and have found that it was more difficult to go partway and stop than to not go at all. It's not that we don't miss and want the hugs and kisses and so on, or that we're 100% observant about these things, it's that it got very difficult to figure out where to draw the line. It's a different sort of difficulty.

And it's not a matter of being physically unclean, as women still hug and kiss their male family members. It is meant to make life easier, and it *does*, as well as heightening things during permissable times.

Other points: it's not a sin to be come tamei - they made sefer torahs tamei so that people wouldn't store food around them. Food attracts mice, mice will nibble on the parchment of the sefer Torah. The reason we make a big deal about the niddah thing is that it's just about the only purity law we *can* obey anymore - and it really doesn't take away much tumah. It's just that the Torah says a man and a woman can't have sex unless the woman has gone to mikveh after her last period, and it's something that can be done even without a Temple in Jerusalem.

I'm aware that there is rabbinic literature that is less...enlightened, but men find the whole period thing to be uncomfortable, and the rabbis were and are men. This has nothing to do with halacha, and really doesn't inform it. It does inform customs such as women not touching Sifre Torah, or menstruants not looking at open ones, and those need to be addressed and changed.