Sisterhood Blog

Mikveh-Going Singles

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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I enjoyed taking Forward Web Editor Gabrielle Birkner — a friend as well as a colleague — to the mikveh just before her recent wedding, an experience she describes in her recent Sisterhood post.

I’ve taken a number of friends over the years, happy to introduce my sisters in liberal Judaism to this central ritual of a Jewish married woman’s life, which can seem mysterious or even intimidating if it’s not something you’ve been personally introduced to.

As Gabi wrote, it is quiet time I appreciate each month. More than that, it feels like a sanctuary, a private women’s space carved out of my busy life as a working mother to focus on my own hopes and prayers. I cherish my own mikveh observance as a space for real spiritual intimacy.

Reading more about the Mishna’s views of ritual impurity in a fascinating recent book, “The Boy on the Door on the Ox,” by Rabbi Martin Samuel Cohen, has enhanced my relationship to mikveh.

Now, I realize, immersing offers me the opportunity to wash off the “tumah,” or ritual impurity — a kind of inchoate state of taintedness — often unknowingly encountered through daily life, not just the ritual impurity I acquire through menstruation.

But what I want to talk about here is the simmering controversy around sexually active unmarried women going to mikveh. “If they want to add a certain measure of sanctity to the relationship, then they go,” says Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz, a Conservative rabbi living in Israel, who authored “Taking the Plunge: A Practical and Spiritual Guide to the Mikvah.”

She estimates that, of the Orthodox women who are having sex outside of marriage, perhaps one-third use the mikveh each month.

“It is a problem that people delay marriage so much, or are 50 and divorced” and having sex but are not supposed to go to mikveh, she said. “People should at least be talking about it and not scared to admit that the reality exists.”

My friend “Shuli,” who asked to go by a pseudonym, is 28, is a self-described Orthodox woman in a committed relationship having sex. Shuli says that she and her friends don’t use the mikveh “because we’re not married.”

“I know a few of us who are not married and definitely having sex, and keep Orthodox halacha except for that,” she says.

In Israel, according to Rabbi Andrew Sacks, who heads the Conservative/Masorti movement there, women and rabbis affiliated with his movement are routinely blocked from using the publicly-funded mikvaot. He wrote about it in this Jerusalem Post blog post.

Early last year, one of Israel’s chief rabbis issued a ban on single women going to the mikveh there, out of concern it was promoting pre-marital sex.

Rabbi Susan Grossman authored a Conservative movement responsum on approaching mikveh use in new ways.

“I wanted to include unmarried people, even those in a gay relationship. It should be used as an expression of intimacy in a loving, trusting committed relationship,” said Rabbi Grossman, who leads Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Maryland.

She is also chair of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards’ Subcommittee on Family, Gender and Human Sexuality.

In Columbia, “we have a Lubavitch mikveh in town, so there’s no safe place for someone single to go where they would keep their anonymity,” she told The Sisterhood. Around the country “are there individuals doing this? I know there are because people call me with this kind of question.”

It isn’t many people, she admits. “The hot part of the topic is that people are uncomfortable with acknowledging that premarital sex is part of society today. I wish people were banging down the doors to get to the mikveh.”

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