Living waters (slightly) reinterpreted

An example of a deep cultural practice that seems to be—like many deep cultural practices, actually—able to make a rich and creative rebound from rejection and critique.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Jewish feminists claimed that the mikveh and other laws dealing with niddah, or menstruation, deemed women’s natural cycles unclean. (Under rabbinical law, married couples are forbidden to have sexual relations during the woman’s menstrual period and for seven days after menstruation has ceased. Some couples even sleep in separate beds during that time.) Objecting to what they saw as the patriarchal concept of ‘family purity,’ many feminists rejected the mikveh and the rituals that surround it. Mikveh continued, of course, but mostly among Conservative and Orthodox Jews.

‘Early feminists were very negative about the mikveh, seeing it as a denigration of women, a focus on ‘cleanliness’ and ‘impurity’ that seemed to be a way of keeping women from tainting men,’ says Shuly Rubin Schwartz, assistant professor of American Jewish history at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. ‘Now women are saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is a tradition that was an important part of Judaism for our foremothers. Let’s look at the deeper meaning.’’


from “Take Me to the Mikveh,” by Andy Steiner, Utne Reader, November/December 2001

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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