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 mikvah as a safe space. Safe not only as in safe from predators; but also safe to women – 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 halakhic standards of Jewish law, of the mikvah.) Finally the mikvah must be an inviting place that communicates to the holy women who use it that they and their comfort matter.
Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 16th Century commentary, teaches that women should conceal the timing of their mikvah nights. This is a time of renewal – renewal in woman’s relationship with herself, with her husband, and with God – in other words, renewal in her most private relationships. To accomplish this, we must build up the confidence and knowledge of women – through education and through continued attention to communal taharat ha-mishpacha 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 ensuring confidence and dignity to women who use our mikva’ot is at the top of the list.