My e‑mail, Facebook, and Jewish media resources are inundated by the many articles and posts circulating about the recently alleged abuses by a prominent Washington 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, G‑d 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 mikveh. The mikveh 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 HaKadosh Baruch Hu. This sad story has highlighted the fact that, for some, mikveh observance has become associated with anxiety and vulnerability. Certainly, the articles published have raised a host of important issues that must be addressed. But amidst those issues lies another fundamental issue that requires real attention: the woman’s relationship with mikveh and general observance of taharat ha’mishpachah (family purity).
Religious women are taught that the concept of niddah, along with Shabbos and kashrus, 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’mishpachah—about what actually constitutes niddah and all the accompanying halachos. For women who recently experienced a miscarriage or are receiving fertility treatments, more halachic questions arise, with even more anxiety over their consequences.
Before ever stepping foot in a mikveh, 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 mikveh 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 in generations past. The Five Towns/Far Rockaway community owes tremendous gratitude to those who fund and care for the mikva’ot in our community.
But as the world we live in becomes more complex, we have to redouble our efforts to ensure that taharat ha’mishpachah remains as dignified an experience as possible. This does not only mean that every mikveh should be guarded properly. It starts with proper kallah classes, given by educated, approachable, and non-judgmental women. It continues with classes, discussions, or other outlets for married women to learn more about laws, customs, and challenges of niddah, fertility and pregnancy, nursing, aging, health issues, genetic counseling, and psychological disorders.
It especially means protecting the mikveh as a safe space. Safe not only as in safe from predators, but also safe to women—as a space where a woman knows that her privacy is respected and that her observance, or anything else for that matter, is not judged. (And yes, this can be accomplished even while respecting the highest halachic standards of the mikveh.) Finally the mikveh must be an inviting place that communicates to the holy women who use it that they and their comfort matter.
The Rema teaches that women should conceal the timing of their mikveh nights. This is a time of renewal—renewal in a woman’s relationship with herself, with her husband, and with HaKadosh Baruch Hu—in other words, renewal in her most private relationships. To accomplish this, we must build up the confidence of women, through education and through continued attention to communal taharat ha’mishpachah infrastructure. We must offer as many possible resources to women, and we must refer them to health professionals when appropriate. We must make sure that our mikva’ot are safe and inviting.
Indeed, this latest case of abuse struck a chord. There are numerous matters that need to be confronted in response. Let’s make sure that affording confidence and dignity to women who use our mikva’ot is at the top of the list.
Lisa Septimus is a yoetzet halachah for the Five Towns. She lectures widely and is available for phone or e‑mail consultation on all matters of taharat mishpachah and women’s health. She can be reached at 516-900-2109 or firstname.lastname@example.org.