by Rebbetzin Rivkah Slonim
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Superficially, a modern-day mikveh looks very much like a miniature swimming pool. In a religion rich with detail, beauty, and ornamentation -- against the backdrop of the ancient Temple or even the contemporary synagogue -- the mikveh is surprisingly nondescript, a humble structure.
Its ordinary appearance, however, belies its primary place in Jewish life and law. The mikveh offers the individual, the community, and the nation of Israel the remarkable gift of purity and holiness. No other religious establishment, structure, or rite can affect the Jew in this way and on such an essential level. Its extraordinary power has held sway since the dawn of time.
Our tradition relates that after being banished from Eden, Adam sat in a river that flowed from the garden as part of his attempt to return to his original perfection. Before the revelation at Sinai, all Jews were commanded to immerse themselves in preparation for coming face to face with God. In the desert, the famed well of Miriam served as a mikveh, and Aaron and his sons induction into the priesthood was marked by immersion in the mikveh. In Temple times, the priests as well as each Jew who wished entry into the House of God had to first immerse in a mikveh. On Yom Kippur, the holiest of all days, the high priest was allowed entrance into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple, into which no other mortal could enter. This was the zenith of a day that involved an ascending order of services -- each of which was preceded by immersion in the mikveh.
The primary uses of mikveh today are delineated in Jewish law and date back to the dawn of Jewish history. They cover many elements of Jewish life. Mikveh is an integral part of conversion to Judaism. Mikveh is used for the immersion of new pots, dishes, and utensils before they may be used by a Jew. The mikveh concept is also the focal point of the purification rite of a Jew before the person is laid to his eternal rest and the soul descends on high. Men may use the mikveh on various occasions; with the exception of conversion they are all customary. The most widely practiced customs are immersion by a groom on his wedding day and by every man before Yom Kippur. But the most important and general usage of mikveh is for purification by the menstruant woman within a framework known as taharat hamishpachah, family purity.
The observance of family purity, and immersion in the mikveh within that framework, is a biblical injunction of the highest order. While most Jews see the synagogue as the central institution in Jewish life, Jewish law states that constructing a mikveh takes precedence over building a house of worship. Both a synagogue and a Torah scroll, Judaism's most venerated treasure, may be sold to raise funds for the building of a mikveh. In the eyes of Jewish law, a group of Jewish families living together do not attain the status of a community if they do not have access to a mikveh. Jewish married life, and therefore the birth of future generations in accordance with Jewish law, is possible only where there is accessibility to a mikveh. It is clearly no exaggeration to state that the mikveh is the touchstone of Jewish life and the portal to a Jewish future.
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The concept of mikveh is rooted in the spiritual. Jewish life is marked by the notion of havdalah, separation and distinction. On Saturday night, as the Shabbat departs and the new week begins, Jews are reminded of the borders that delineate every aspect of life. Over a cup of wine, we bless God, Who separates between the holy and the mundane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labor.... In fact, the literal definition of the Hebrew word kodesh, most often translated as holy, is that which is separated. In many ways, mikveh is the threshold separating the unholy from the holy, but it is even more.
Simply put, immersion in a mikveh signals a change in status more correctly, an elevation in status. Utensils that could heretofore not be used can, after immersion, be utilized in the holy act of eating as a Jew. A woman who from the onset of her menses was in a state of niddut, separated from her husband, may after immersion be reunited with him in the ultimate holiness of married intimacy. Men or women in Temple times, who were precluded from services because of ritual defilement, could, after immersion, enter the House of God. The case of the convert is most dramatic. The individual who descends into the mikveh as a gentile emerges from beneath its waters as a Jew. While an understanding of the ultimate reason of any of Gods commandments is impossible, there are insights that can add meaning to our mikveh experience.
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In the beginning, there was only water. A miraculous compound, it is the primary source and vivifying factor of all sustenance and, by extension, all life as we know it. But it is more. For these very same attributes -- water as source and sustaining energy -- are mirrored in the spiritual. Water has the power to purify, to restore and replenish life to our essential, spiritual selves. The mikveh personifies both the womb and the grave, the portals to life and the afterlife. In both, the person is stripped of all power and prowess. In both, there is a mode of total reliance, complete abdication of control.
Immersion in the mikveh can be understood as a symbolic act of self-abnegation, the conscious suspension of the self as an autonomous force. In so doing, the person immersing signals a desire to achieve oneness with the Source of all life, God. Immersion indicates the abandonment of one form of existence to embrace one infinitely higher. It is thus described not only in terms of purification, revitalization, and rejuvenation but also and perhaps primarily as rebirth.
In primitive societies, menstruating women were a source of consternation and fear. Peace could be made with menstruation only by ascribing it to evil and demonic spirits and by the adaptation of a social structure that facilitated its avoidance. Viewed against this backdrop, the Jewish rhythm in marriage is perceived by many as a throwback to archaic taboos, a system rooted in antiquated attitudes and a ubiquitous form of misogyny.
In truth, family purity is a celebration of life and our most precious human relationships. It can be understood most fully only within a deeper notion of purity and impurity.
Judaism teaches that the source of all taharah, purity, is life itself. Conversely, death is the harbinger of tumah, impurity. All types of ritual impurity, and the Torah describes many, are rooted in the absence of life or some measure -- even a whisper -- of death.
When stripped to its essence, a woman's menses signals the death of potential life. Each month a woman's body prepares for the possibility of conception. The uterine lining is built up ' rich and replete, ready to serve as a cradle for life -- in anticipation of a fertilized ovum. Menstruation is the shedding of the lining, the end of this possibility. The presence of potential life within fills a woman's body with holiness and purity. With the departure of this potential, impurity sets in, conferring upon the woman a state of impurity or, more specifically, niddut. Impurity is neither evil nor dangerous, and it is not something tangible. Impurity is a spiritual state of being, the absence of purity, much as darkness is the absence of light. Only immersion in the mikveh, following the requisite preparation, has the power to change the status of the woman.
The concept of purity and impurity as mandated by the Torah and applied within Jewish life is unique; it has no parallel or equivalent in this postmodern age. Perhaps that is why it is difficult for the contemporary mind to relate to the notion and view it as relevant. In ancient times, however, tumah and taharah were central and determining factors. The status of a Jew, whether he or she was ritually pure or impure, was at the very core of Jewish living. It dictated and regulated a person's involvement in all areas of ritual.
Most notably, tumah made entrance into the Holy Temple impossible. There were numerous types of impurities that affected Jews -- regarding both their life and Temple service -- and a commensurate number of purification processes. Mikveh immersion was the culmination of the purification rite in every case. Even for the ritually pure, ascending to a higher level of spiritual involvement or holiness necessitated immersion in a mikveh. As such, the institution of mikveh took center stage in Jewish life. In our day, in this post-Temple period, the power and interplay of ritual status has all but vanished, relegating this dynamic to obscurity.
There is, however, one arena in which purity and impurity continue to be pivotal. In this connection only is there a biblical mandate for mikveh immersion -- and that is regarding human sexuality. Human lovemaking signals the possibility and potential for new life, the formation of a new body and the descent from Heaven of a new soul. In their fusing, man and woman become part of something larger; in their transcendence of the self, they draw on, and even touch, the Divine. They enter into a partnership with God; they come closest to taking on the Godly attribute of creator. In fact, the sacredness of the intimate union remains unmitigated even when the possibility of conception does not exist. In the metaphysical sense, the act and its potential remain linked.
Human sexuality is a primary force in the lives of a married couple; it is the unique language and expression of the love they share. A strong relationship between husband and wife is not only the backbone of their own family unit but is integral to the world at large. The blessings of trust, stability, continuity, and, ultimately, community all flow from the commitment they have to each other and to a joint future. In reaffirming their commitment, in their intimacy, the couple adds to the vibrancy and health of their society and to the fruition of the Divine plan: a world perfected by man. As such, they are engaged in the most sacred of pursuits.
In this light, it becomes clear why marital relations are often referred to as the holy temple of human endeavor. And entrance to the holy always was, and continues to be, contingent on ritual purity.
While we cannot presently serve God in a physical Temple in Jerusalem, we can erect a sacred shrine within our lives. Immersion in the mikveh is the gateway to the holy ground of conjugality.
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The mikveh cycle, also known as the laws of family purity, is a Divine ordinance. There is no better or more legitimate reason for their observance. And therein lies the mitzvahs potency. The knowledge that it is sourced in something larger than the self -- that it is not based on the emotions or a subjective decision -- allows taharat hamishpachah to work for the mutual benefit of woman and husband. Ironically, this unfathomable mitzvah reveals its blessings to us more than almost any other in daily, palpable ways.
At first glance, the mikveh system speaks of limitations and constraints -- a loss of freedom. In truth, emancipation is born of restriction. Secure, confident, well-adjusted children (and adults) are disciplined children; they understand restraint and ultimately learn self-control. Safe, stable countries are those pieces of land surrounded by definite, well-guarded borders. The drawing of parameters creates terra firma amid chaos and confusion and allows for traversing the plain we call life in a progressive and productive manner. And in no area of life is this more necessary than in our most intimate relationships.
Over time, open-ended sexual availability often leads to a waning of excitement and even interest. Mikveh's monthly hiatus teaches couples to treasure the time they have together. They count the days until they can be together, and each time there is a new quality to their reunion. In this regard, the Talmud states, So that she will be as beloved as on the day of her marriage. In this way, they are constantly involved in an ongoing process of becoming one flesh.
Furthermore, human beings share a nearly universal tendency for the forbidden. How many otherwise intelligent individuals have jeopardized their marriages and families in pursuit of the illicit because of its seeming promise of the romantic and the new? Mikveh introduces a novel scenario: one's spouse -- one's partner in life, day after day, for better and for worse -- becomes temporarily inaccessible, forbidden, off limits.
For many women, their time as a niddah also offers them a measure of solitude and introspection. There is, additionally, an empowering feeling of autonomy over their bodies and, indeed, over the sexual relationship they share with their spouses. There is strength and comfort in the knowledge that human beings can neither have their every whim nor be had at whim.
The benefits brought to married life by the practice of family purity have been recognized by numerous experts, Jew and gentile alike. Ultimately, however, mikveh's powerful hold on the Jewish people -- its promise of hope and redemption -- is rooted in the Torah and flows from a belief in God and His perfect wisdom. Judaism calls for the consecration of human sexuality. It is not enough that intimacy be born of commitment and sworn to exclusivity; it must be sacred. By immersing in the mikveh, each woman can link herself to an ongoing tradition that has spanned the generations. Through mikveh she brings herself in immediate contact with the Source of life, purity, and holiness -- with the God who surrounds her and is within her always.
Reprinted with permission from JEWISH WOMEN SPEAK ABOUT JEWISH MATTERS
Published by: Targum Press, Inc.
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