Whilst studying this week’s sedra (Torah portion) and reflecting on its discussion of the purification process (including immersion in water) for people who have experienced different types of genital flow-based impurity, I have pondered whether there might be something of value here for contemporary progressive Jews.
I wondered whether there might be a way for progressive Jews to reclaim the potentially transformative and consciousness raising ancient Jewish practice of immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath), and if so, what it might look like. Two reflections in particular struck me:
Firstly, we are told in Vayikra (Leviticus) 15. 16 that if a man has a seminal emission (apart from during sex) he becomes ‘tamei’ (ritually impure) and he must go through the ritual of bathing in water to become ‘tahor’ (ritually pure) again.
Later in that chapter we are told that when a woman begins menstruating she also becomes tamei, and remains tamei for seven days. However, there is no mention of the woman having to bathe in water in order for her to become ritually pure again. The text seems to assume that all that is required is the passing of seven days from the start of her period.
Yet, according to the traditional halakhah, a woman must immerse herself in a mikveh after her period ends in order to become ritually pure once again (Shulchan Aruch, Laws of Niddah (Yoreh Deah 197:1)).
There seems to be no mention in the Torah of a menstruant woman (a niddah) being required to immerse herself in water in order to become ritually pure! On the contrary, the Torah states explicity that it is a man who is required to immerse in water when he becomes tamei!
Secondly, people in long term monogamous relationships often report on how challenging it can be to retain a sense of eroticism, desire and excitement in their sex lives. I once read an insightful article by a sex therapist in a secular magazine devoted to relationships. She was addressing the issue of how to keep sexual attraction, sexual desire and romance alive in long term monogamous relationships. Her advice to couples was to make a conscious and intentional choice to refrain from sexual contact for one week of every calendar month.
She wasn’t suggesting that a couple shouldn’t touch or hug or use physical touch at all during that week, rather they should refrain from actively engaging in erotic and sexually intimate activities or behaviours.
The rationale for this was that the week of abstention would lead to an increase in each partner’s desire for the other. The increase in desire being stimulated by the fact that they were forbidden to each other during that week and, as we know, we often end up desiring that which is forbidden to us!
I remember thinking how wonderful it was that the essence of the advice of the sex therapist was already contained within the traditional Jewish practice of ’toharat hamishpachah’ (the laws of family purity)!
In the context of a heterosexual marriage, these laws mean that sexual relations between a woman and a man are forbidden from the time that a woman begins her period until she has immersed herself in a mikveh, at the end of seven days after her period has ended.
However, there are, to my mind, several problems with the traditional laws of toharat hamishpachah. Here are two such problems. Firstly, the language that is used to describe the condition of the woman during the time that sexual relations are forbidden is offensive. She will often be described as ‘unclean’ or ‘impure’ or ‘ritually impure’ all of which are translations of the Hebrew word ’tamei’. As people living in the 21st century, we cannot help but be offended by the implication that a woman in such a situation is in some sense dirty or in a degraded state.
Secondly, why should it only be the woman who goes to the mikveh? In our egalitarian society, surely both men and women have a responsibility in relation to something as mutual and intimate as their sexual relations? And haven’t we seen that the Torah itself instructs men (and not women) to immerse themselves in water to become ritually pure!
So I was wondering what it might look like for us, as progressive Jews, to reclaim the ancient Jewish practice of immersion in a mikveh as a way of sanctifying sexual relations in contemporary long term monogamous relationships, both homosexual and heterosexual?
Sadly, to my mind, too many progressive Jews (including rabbis) have thrown out the baby with the bath water in relation to some of the profound and deeply meaningful consciousness-raising practices which were devised by our spiritual ancestors in order to sanctify and bring holiness to different aspects of our lives.
Currently in the progressive world, immersion in a mikveh is required as part of the conversion process and so is already considered to be a transformative and efficacious practice. Would it be impossible for us to articulate an egalitarian, relevant and meaningful contemporary practice of mikveh for progressive Jews in respect of our sexuality? Or might it lead to a type of critique I have heard from certain quarters of progressive Judaism that such an approach would be encouraging a form of ‘pseudo-Orthodoxy’?
So, what might a progressive Jewish practice of mikveh include and look like for couples in long term monogamous relationships? Here are a few thoughts and suggestions:
1. Both partners in the relationship could choose to engage in the immersion practice together after a week of refraining from sexual relations with each other;
2. The removal of any language from the practice that refers to a person being impure or unclean;
3. Creating prayers to be said before and after immersion that would articulate the purpose of the practice e.g. an intention to deepen and renew the emotional and sexual connection between the couple; an intention to sanctify and honour sexual relations within the relationship and to imbue them with holiness;
4. In a heterosexual relationship (where the woman has regular periods), the man and the woman might choose to refrain from sexual relations when the woman begins her period and go to the mikveh seven days after the woman begins her period (which would parallel the amount of time described in our sedra);
5. In a homosexual relationship (or a heterosexual relationship where the woman either no longer has periods or does not have regular periods), the partners might choose a significant time of each month to begin counting seven days in which they refrain from sexual relations with each other and then go to the mikveh. Perhaps this time could be linked to nature e.g. full moon or new moon; or it could be a time that is significant for the partners for their own personal reasons.
It seems to me that an important part of a progressive approach to such a practice would be that the details of the practice are left for each couple to decide for themselves in a way that is most meaningful for them.
Student rabbi Danny Newman
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.