The Jewish Week ■ February 2, 2007
The Loneliest Mitzvah
Erica Schacter Schwartz
Special To The Jewish Week

There has been a lot of excitement on the Upper East Side about the new Chabadmikveh on 77th Street. With its beautiful bathrooms and changing rooms, selections of Molton Brown soaps and shampoos, and relaxing, instrumental Jewish music playing through an overhead sound system, the new facility has truly transformed the experience of going to the mikveh. And women in the neighborhood have been talking about it, talking about how much nicer it feels to go each month, when a woman immerses herself in a religious bath and ritually concludes her niddah period —her days of menstruation followed by seven “clean days” —during which she is prohibited from engaging in marital relations. But following nearly every rave review of the beautiful facility is the acknowledgement that the act of going to the mikveh — any mikveh — is still a struggle. Though women don’t frequently speak so openly about their mikveh experiences — in keeping with the laws of tzniut, or modesty, the subject of mikveh is kept rather private — I notice that when one woman brings it up, others are eager to share their mixed feelings. I notice this with my friends. I notice this in mikveh waiting rooms (both in the city, and in various New York suburbs), where during nighttime hours, clusters of women are brought together simply by the overlap in their cycles, waiting to be called in “to dip.” To most observant Jews, the three most important areas of Jewish law are Shabbat, kashrut and taharat hamishpacha, the laws of marital relations between a husband and wife. And yet the widespread sense of struggle seems unique to taharat hamishpacha. This is not to say that no observant Jew has difficulty keeping Shabbat week after week, nor that other observant Jews don’t find it challenging to eat only kosher food, but there seems to be a more consistent struggle, and a more universal struggle, with the laws of the mikveh. erhaps it is because taharat hamishpacha s not introduced into our lives until we are married. For an observant Jew, Shabbat and kashrut are a part of one’s life practically
upon birth — we don’t ever know a world without them — but the laws of sexual relations
are a dramatic shift in a woman’s life. A woman’s menstrual cycle takes on a whole new meaning upon marriage, and gives her a new sense of religious responsibility for which she alone is accountable. Which I think is the other part of the struggle. Yes, the Jewish laws of marriage emphasize modesty and privacy, but privacy in the case of the mikveh can feel like loneliness. We alone are the ones counting our days and checking ourselves. We alone are responsible for thoroughly cleaning ourselves and preparing ourselves for immersion.
We alone go out at night (late hours during summertime), disappearing from our kids, while trying to keep the act “private.” Unlike Shabbat and kashrut, which are inclusive of all members of the community— men, women and children alike — this third area of Jewish life applies to women only. Shabbat and kashrut might distinguish us as a people, but also unite us as a people. Taharat hamishpacha distinguishes us as a people, but each woman’s practice is hers to experience individually, not communally. And yet we do it. To be sure, many of our customs and observances are hard to understand and often our laws do not have a stated reason. But still, most of us try to find some larger picture, some deeper meaning, in the practices we observe, for ultimately this is what inspires us to go on keeping them. For some women, fear or guilt might play a part. We’re afraid something bad will happen to us if we don’t follow the law. The mikveh laws put a woman directly in touch with her reproductive cycle, and while nothing can ensure a healthy pregnancy or the birth of a healthy child, these laws give us a sense that we are doing as much as possible to bring
about a positive outcome. Through the religious act of immersion, we reach out to God to help us in this uncertain area of life. And in this sense, the mikveh laws are very much like Shabbat and kashrut, which invite God’s participation into acts as mundane as eating or working. Like these other prominent aspects of religious life, and perhaps like Judaism in general, the mikveh reminds us that everything routine can be made holy and sacred. By placing a religious structure around the physical expression of marriage, we make God a part of the private relationship we experience with a spouse in the hope of creating sanctity in our home and family. ■