by Lisa Septimus, Yoetzet Halacha. First published on Times of Israel, October 23, 2014
My email, Facebook, and Jewish media resources are inundated by the many articles and posts circulating about the recent alleged abuses by a prominent DC rabbi. Unfortunately this is not the first scandal to affect the Jewish community. Nonetheless, this case seems to have struck a chord in a way I have not seen before. (This is not, God forbid, to minimize the pain of victims of other instances of abuse.) Why?
An important factor in the heightened anguish of this particular incident is the location of the abuse – the mikvah. The mikvah is supposed to be a safe and sacred space. It is supposed to bring feelings of renewal, joy and connection – with our spouses, with ourselves, and with God. This sad story has highlighted the fact that, for some, mikvah observance has become associated with anxiety and vulnerability. Certainly, the articles published have raised a host of important challenges that must be addressed. But amidst all of those issues lies another fundamental issue that requires real attention – women’s relationship with mikvah and general observance of taharat ha-mishpacha (laws of family life).
Religious women are taught that Niddah ritual, laws of family life, along with Shabbat and Kashrut, is one of the three pillars of Jewish life. Yet despite this responsibility, too often women are not sufficiently empowered to know or understand its many complicated laws. Despite the tremendous growth in learning across different Jewish communities recently, there remains much confusion about taharat ha-mishpacha, laws of family life: confusion about what actually constitutes niddah, when to start counting, what happens when she forgets to check, how to prepare for mikvah, and many other issues. For women who recently experienced a miscarriage or are receiving fertility treatments, more halakhic, questions of Jewish law, arise, with even more anxiety over their consequences.
Before ever stepping foot in a mikvah, women in our communities have had years to internalize the Jewish value of modesty. Suddenly, for the first time, they descend, in the absolute opposite of a state of modesty, into a bath in a public space, in the presence of another individual (the mikvah attendant). The whole process can leave a woman feeling more than a little vulnerable.
The Jewish community has accomplished a lot in our support for this sacred institution. We have built beautiful, private, and warm mikva’ot that would have been but a dream to generations past. We owe particular gratitude to those who fund and care for the mikva’ot in our community.
But as the world we live in continues to become more complex and more problematic we have to redouble our efforts to assure that taharat ha-mishpacha remains as dignified an experience as possible. This does not only mean that every mikvah should be guarded properly. It starts with proper kallah classes for new brides and grooms, given by educated, approachable, and non-judgmental women and men. It should continue with classes, discussions, or other outlets for married women and men- to learn more about laws, customs, and challenges of niddah, staining, birth control, infertility, pregnancy and nursing, menopause, health issues, genetic counseling and psychological disorders.
Our efforts also need to go towards protecting the mi