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Taharat ha’mishpacha (טהרת המשפחה family purity)
The Jewish practice of niddah and the mikveh are often considered sexist, or not compatible with modern-day sensibilities. There is a belief that Judaism teaches that women’s bodies are dirty, and that women must use the mikveh to make themselves clean. This reputation exists because of some actual sexist teachings within the Haredi community, but those views are not part of the mitzvot (commandments) themselves.
To some extent non-Orthodox Jews have allowed Haredim to own the laws of niddah, the mikveh, etc. When our community surrenders all teaching and practice to the most extreme elements, then of course we’ll see sexist interpretations. But that doesn’t mean that the mitzvot themselves are sexist – it means that the moderates are failing to exercise their own freedom of speech.
What do the words Tahor and Taharah (ritually pure) and Tamae and Tumah (ritually impure) really mean? Tamae and Tumah are often translated as “defiled” or “unclean”, while Tahor is usually translated as “clean” or “pure”. However, these words have nothing to do with physical cleanliness. Rather, they describe a state of ritual applicability in regards to fulfilling mitzvot, usually those associated with the Temple in Jerusalem, and also those associated with the function of Kohanim (priests) in general, or sex in a Jewish marriage.
How can we view this practice in its social or anthropological context? The following is from the JPS commentary on Numbers, by Jacob Milgrom:
Bodily fluids that are seen as rendering someone ritually impure focus on four phenomenon: death, blood, semen and skin disease. Their common denominator is death. For the Torah, anything that can cause ritual impurity is seen as the antithesis of holiness; since the quintessence and source of holiness resides with God, it is imperative that Israel control the occurrence of impurity. Judaism views the source of all Taharah, “purity,” as life itself.
Conversely, death is the harbinger of Tumah, “impurity.” When stripped to its essence, a woman’s menses simply signals the loss of an opportunity to create another life.
Now consider the mythologies of ancient Israel’s neighbors, the social context in which the Torah was given. Natural phenomenon, like those described, above were often seen as extensions of supernatural forces pitted against each other in cosmic struggles; In such schemes these forces are controlled by benevolent or demonic deities. In contrast, the Torah understands all such issues not as forces to be feared or shunned, but rather natural forces of life and death, that can be controlled and sanctified by Israel’s obedience to the mitzvot.
Of all the historic changes that occurred in how mankind viewed sexuality, the development of Israel’s ritual purity laws may well be one of the most significant. The Torah totally severs the concept of ritual purity from the demonic; It is now a symbolic system: By following the mitzvot, Israel is reminded of its divine imperative to cleave to life and reject death. The Torah plainly states this reason for following mitzvot in the same chapter that we are concerned with:
You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord. (Lev. 18:5)
The Torah makes it clear that requiring someone to immerse in a mikveh does not mean that they are “unclean” or “defiled”; In fact the following material [adapted from Aryeh Kaplan’s “The Waters of Eden”] shows that the holiest priests within Judaism also need to use the Mikveh.
Consider the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests, or “Kohanim,” which took place soon after the exodus from Egypt. Aaron and his sons then served as priests in the sanctuary (“Mishkan”) built in the desert, and their descendants have retained this special status for all time. The Torah tells us that the first step in the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests (“Kohanim”) involved immersion in a Mikvah. Here, immersion did not involve “purification,” but rather, a change in status–an elevation from one state to another. Aaron and his sons were originally no different than anyone else, but with this immersion they attained the new status of priests.
The second area where we see the special significance of Mikvah is in the Yom Kippur service in the Holy Temple. This service is outlined in the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus. Although this special Temple ritual has not been performed for over 1900 years, its detailed retelling provides some of the most dramatic elements of our current Yom Kippur afternoon (“Mussaf”) service.
The most crucial part of this ancient Temple service was the entrance of the High Priest (“Kohen Gadol”) into the Holy of Holies – the special chamber in the Temple where the ark containing the original stone Tablets given to Moses was kept. This was the only time of the year whenany human being was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. The High Priest had to put on special white vestments before entering this most sacred room. [As part of the required rites, he] would have to immerse himself in a Mikvah. The High Priest was not impure or unclean in any way. He was rather undergoing a change in status, symbolized most dramatically by the changes of vestments When he entered the Holy of Holies, he had a very different status than before – a unique status that would allow him to enter this room. This change in status was achieved through immersion in the Mikvah.
In non-Orthodox communities, mandating waiting the extra seven days is at best controversial. It was initially a custom of the pious. Its incorporation into Jewish law stemmed from the confusion of rabbis over the duration of menstrual cycles. Scholars have proposed that contradictory statements in the Talmud and in the works of Nachmanides and Maimonides led to a situation whereby the extra 7 days became mandatory. However, this longer period is in direct contradiction to Mishnaic and Talmudic statements.
Therefore, individual rabbis (Joel Roth, Michael Gold, Susan Grossman, Daniel Kohn and JTS Talmud Professor David C. Kraemer) and the Rabbinical Assembly’s law committee, have paskened that the extra days are not mandatory. The responsa are listed below.
While these practices are not widely followed among the non-Orthodox, Conservative Judaism nonetheless teaches that these practices are just as important as other parts of Jewish law.
Uses of the mikvah today:
(1) Married women immerse following menstruation; marital relations can then resume after immersion.
(2) A proselytes immerses him/herself in a mikvah as the final part of their conversion to Judaism.
(3) It is a custom among some to use the mikveh as part of their spiritual preparations before Sabbath, or on the eve of festivals. This custom is especially prevalent on the day before Yom Kippur.
(4) A sofer (scribe) immerses in the mikvah on a daily basis while he is writing a new Torah scroll.
(5) A small but growing number of liberal Jews are incorporating the mikvah as the central part of new Jewish rites for healing.
Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology, Rivkah Slonim
Modern responsa on the laws of family purity, from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS)