Why must a woman immerse herself in a mikva - a naturally collected body of water - upon the completion of her period, and a subsequent count of seven days where no blood was seen? Women from both religious and irreligious circles find fault with Judaism, citing mikva as their first accusation. I believe mikva is abandoned out of ignorance, and a false sense of self-degradation.
The concept of a mikva is that one go through a process of “change” at a certain juncture. Mikva is not applicable to women alone. The High Priest would immerse many times between changing his vestments, although he was not filthy. A man who had a nocturnal emission, or a one completing his or her conversion would also immerse. The Talmud states that one who converts is like a newborn child. (Rabbi Kaplan) Additionally, upon purchasing new vessels, one must immerse them as a distancing from the heathen from whom he purchased them. Again, we see immersion as a method of changing the status if the immersed.
Mikva carries no powers, nor does it make something clean. Rather, the immersed undergoes a change in “halachik status.” My friend Jonathan corrected a false statement I wrote, which I now replaced with his: “Maran in Yore Deah (Hilchot Tevila 198:48) says that a menstrual woman who immerses without intent for purification (tahara) i.e., she just happens to fall in, or she immerses in a mikva just to cool off, she is now permitted to her husband”. This proves that intent is not required for the mikva to change one’s status.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in “Waters of Eden” cites some interesting parallels. He states that one, who emerges from water, is akin to a newborn. A Rabbi once suggested that when Pharaoh’s daughter lifted Moses from the Nile River, it explained her psychological attachment to Moses as her own. This act of ‘lifting him from water’, was identified by her unconsciously as an act of ‘birth’. Emerging from a body of water moves the immersed to a new state of existence. Rabbi Kaplan also suggests that water is a substance in which one cannot breath, and his emergence afterwards is as though life started anew. Again, pointing to a change of status, not a cleaning process.
In addition to the mikva changing one’s state, there is another benefit regarding marriage. The separation of twelve days between husband and wife is terminated through the wife’s immersion. This absence of physical contact, and certainly intercourse, provides a marriage with a renewal of mutual interest. Marriages are affected negatively when sexual intercourse is over indulged. As all things indulged in excess, marriage partners become bored of each other, and fantasize of others. Separation and subsequent immersion renew the marriage, and secure the marriage bond each month.
Some women feel degraded by this command of mikva. Perhaps the idea of being commanded to unclothe one’s self generates the underlying resistance. This is certainly a humbling act. Nudity exposes a purely animalistic aspect of man. A psychologically healthy individual does not desire to face this aspect of himself. We learn that during Purim, Queen Vashti tormented the Jewish women by forcing them to work in the nude. Vashti desired to expose herself at the party when summoned by her King Achashverosh, but the Talmud states she didn’t, as “Gabriel attached a tail to her”. What does this mean? It means that a tail - the one organ possessed by animals and not man - symbolizes Vashti’s own instincts. A tail is definitively “animal”, as opposed to any other organ. She wished to expose herself, but due to Divine intervention (Gabriel attaching a tail) she had a stronger desire not to admit to her animalistic side. Perhaps mikva, on some level, awakens this animalistic self-identity, and one rebels from conforming to this command. Perhaps, in part, the Torah’s command of mikva seeks to force man’s instinctual side to be in line with his intelligence. His animalistic identity, now exposed, follows God’s word. This certainly would explain the elevation of one’s status achieved through mikva. One takes himself in the capacity of “instinctual”, and immerses in mikva, thereby subjugating the instincts to God’s word.
There may be one other stressful aspect associated with mikva, which also contributes to a woman’s reluctance to follow this law. Mikva arrives at the conclusion a woman’s monthly cycle. She visits a mikva due to this cycle. Hormonal changes, and the sight of blood accompany the menstrual cycle. A woman may look upon her blood with a sense of loss, filthiness, or even death. It is not a pleasant time physically, or psychologically. It is something to “endure” until it has past. Although she has completed her cycle, when entering a mikva, a woman may now feel she is ‘revisiting’ this period. Mikva then becomes distasteful, as it is an act, a public admission of this endured experience. By not visiting mikva each month and violating Jewish law, a woman successfully leaves behind her distasteful week. But on the contrary, mikva is not tied exclusively with one’s period, as we mentioned. Mikva should not be viewed negatively, for these reasons. One must be sensitive to those issues, which falsely accuse mikva of possessing negative aspects.
Torah laws target a preferred state in man. From wearing Tefillin and eating only Kosher foods, to celebrating holidays and abstaining from work on the Sabbath, God’s wisdom decreed these acts as a means of tempering man’s values towards the most enjoyable and perfected life. We must not wrongfully associate our “pain” in not being allowed to act as we please, with a corrupt Torah system. If we trust a doctor with our bodies, we must certainly trust God with our souls.
Possessing knowledge of God’s laws is the only method for replacing our distasteful, erroneous opinions, with the true and pleasant concepts designed by God. When anyone of us detects any Torah law as something to avert, we must embrace those laws with study, until we understand the true concepts contained, that appeal to our minds. Such concepts will replace our ignorant aversion, with intelligent anticipation.
A reader wrote in to share her perspective:
I was just trying to learn more about going to a mikvah and came across your article on the Internet.
With all due respect, your assertion that menstruation is something a woman must “endure” is certainly subjective. Since you are not female you are only making the assumption based upon your own imagination or upon information someone has told you or both. I can assure you that sometimes, menstruation is not something that is endured but something that is celebrated. For example, the knowledge and the reminder of being able to bare life often occur during a woman’s period. (If you argue that menstruation reminds a woman that she is in fact not carrying life by its very presence, I can assure you that no normal woman would like to have as many children as she does menstruation cycles.) As another example, a woman may feel happy to see she is still youthful and healthy. I know one your woman who is terribly sad because indeed she does not menstruate.
What I am really writing about though, is the implication of your article that a woman may rightfully feel shame, (sense of loss, dirtiness, etc.) It is terribly important to educate women to not feel shame for an entirely natural process. That feeling is something that society instills, and does so unnecessarily. You are right that a woman may feel shame with menstruation, but no more than she may feel happiness. It does not make sense therefore to focus on the negative.
Rabbi, I do hope you will consider this view.