That’s how Varda Polak-Sahm, writing in today’s Washington Post, describes her visit to the Mikveh in preparation for her second wedding. The Mikveh is the ritual purification bath Halakha, the Jewish law, requires of women after each menstrual cycle and prior to an Orthodox wedding ceremony.
According to Orthodox rabbinic law, immersion in the mayyim hayyim, or living waters, removes the impurity left by menstruation and transforms the woman’s status from contaminated to pure. This is an essential element of Jewish existence. Before a synagogue is built, Jewish communities install a Mikveh. Without purification, Orthodox men cannot even touch their wives. Thus, without purification in the Mikveh, there is no future for the Jewish people.
Polak-Sahm writes about her own changing understanding of the Mikveh in this brief essay, making her new book, The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh, sound like a worthwhile read for those of us interested in traditions and beliefs surrounding menstruation.
The Hasidic movement Chabad Lubavitch has opened the first mikvah, a ritual bath for spiritual purification, in Montana. Estimates are that there are fewer than 1000 Jews residing in Montana, but Chabad says this is the only contemporary mikvah in a vast area that includes Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota.
From the Associated Press article:
Jewish law requires married women to immerse in the mikvah for ritual purity after menstruation and a period of abstaining from sex. Brides are expected to immerse before their weddings. The bath can also be used as purification as part of converting to Judaism.
Outside of the small Orthodox Jewish community, many American Jews had stopped using the mikvah, partly out of objections to its perspective on women. However, in recent years, more Jews have been rediscovering traditional practices, and the ritual bath has had a renaissance.
As a shiksa, I don’t care to open the debate about the mikvah’s perspectives on women, but simply to note the significance of this increased availability of means for women to practice menstrual ritual of their faith. (Those who are interested in the question of whether the mikvah is sexist may wish to read this article by Jancie Lochansky, which puts that question to Rivkah Slonim, author of Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology.)