November 20, 2018

Why Did American Jews Give Up on the Mikveh?

“The ultimate training for a rebbetzin is not, in fact, hosting a Shabbat dinner, or remembering the name of a congregant during Kiddush.

It happens, actually, in your dining room on a late weeknight. When you’re basically still a novice bride yourself, your wig sitting awkwardly on your head, not yet molded to your crown, and you sit across from another young Jewish bride, who comes in her gym-wear wearing a tank-top and leggings. You smile at her, take a deep breath and say, “Let’s talk about your period.”

Quickly, all proprieties fall to the side, and Jewish family purity laws — centuries upon centuries of rabbinic texts — are laid out: The moment a woman menstruates, she and her husband are forbidden from sexual intercourse. This separation (in Hebrew, nidda) continues through seven days after the completion of her period, during which she must check that she is clean of any blood. After the seventh day, she then immerses in a mikveh, the ritual bath (after intense preparation), and relations between husband and wife can now resume.

When I first started teaching, I was shocked by how much I stammered. How would I explain these intricate laws — and translate the ancient and medieval intents behind them! — to a modern Manhattan woman who has lived with her boyfriend for three years?”

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