The recent controversy surrounding Rabbi Barry Freundel, and his video cameras in the mikveh, a supposed sanctuary for religious women, has created some challenges for a rabbi’s role in the halachic process relating to sexual relations between a husband and wife.
This sordid chapter has contributed to a certain sense of unease over the position men play in the process a wife must undertake to become spiritually clean, according to Jewish law, and able to engage in physical intimacy with her husband.
While many are focusing on the need to make the mikveh a more woman-dominated sphere, as it already is in many religious communities, I would like to focus on another area where I as a sex therapist working with religious couples have long discerned apprehension.
As is known to observant couples, when a woman is menstruating she becomes niddah and a couple must separate for the duration of the bleeding and an additional seven ‘clean’ days beyond. To determine whether a woman is niddah, or when she has finished this period, there are occasions where a competent second opinion will be necessary. Frequently, underwear or a bedikah cloth is given to a rabbi to determine if a stain constitutes a necessary continuation of the separation period or the woman can go to the mivkeh and engage in sexual relations with her husband.
Over the years, some innovations, like anonymous ‘drop-boxes’ outside of rabbi’s homes or places of work, have been utilized to make the process more impersonal and less uncomfortable. However, I still hear many women who feel deeply troubled by the thought of a man touching and inspecting such a personal item.
Moreover, sometimes the husband will be sent as an emissary and he may not be able to answer many of the rabbi’s questions, further delaying, frustrating and confusing the process.
Organizations like Nishmat have trained Yoatzot Halacha, Women Halachic Consultants, who are able to competently answer questions related to women and niddah, and even have a hotline phone service to meet the needs of women who seek a woman-to-woman address to clarify Jewish law as it relates to issues in Taharat Hamishpachah (an area of Jewish Law that relates to marriage, sexuality and women’s health). This role was devised for women who are more comfortable discussing personal issues with another woman.
However, as it is a hotline the consultants may be unable to provide a definitive answer that only physical examination can provide.
While many women are completely comfortable discussing and approaching rabbis over these matters, there needs to be an alternative for those who aren’t, especially after the sordid details of the mikveh voyeurism were released. Of course, we absolutely must not taint any rabbi with the accusations leveled against Rabbi Freundel, but people who deeply care about this issue within the religious community would also be negligent if it were assumed that this and other similar episodes will have no effect on a woman’s comfort levels dealing with a male religious authority in such sensitive areas.
Perhaps this is one of the saddest and most tragic parts of this whole repugnant chapter, but one we would be remiss to ignore.
While the details of physical separation between observant Jewish couples may seem strange and antiquated to many outside of the religious world, they are a very important time in a couple’s physical and emotional development. Many sex therapists and experts completely unfamiliar with the dictums of Jewish religious observance are recommending a period of monthly physical abstinence between couples so they can improve their relations and communications on other levels and when a couple finishes this period, their physical relations have a new and healthy dimension made more acute by the period of abstinence.
In therapy and cognitive-behavioral treatment, a couple can be advised to abstain from sex for a period of time as a way for committed couples to introduce or reintroduce sensuality and connection, without physical intimacy. This oft-used sex therapy technique can help some spouses feel safer and improve long-term intimacy.
Furthermore, according to a study of couples who keep the laws of niddah presented at the Second Annual Conference on Judaism and Evolution at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in 2013, Rick Goldberg, an independent scholar based in Austin, Texas, and Dr. Orit Barenholz of Hadassah demonstrated that there is a marked increase in testosterone in the men around the date of their wives’ mikveh immersion, which is also the first day she can return to sexual activity with her husband. Due to the timing of the female cycle, this date is also closely linked to a woman’s point of ovulation, which means that these religious couples may have a higher chance of both fertility and sexual libido during the monthly window when they are sexually intimate.
According to Goldberg, the results of this study suggest that rituals rooted in the Torah may confer significant biological advantages.
Nonetheless, those who follow our ancient traditions do not do so necessarily because they have now become vogue in sex therapy counseling or because they may improve the sexual libido.
Those who adhere to the laws of niddah should be entitled to a process where they feel comfortable and relaxed about performing or discussing its requirements. As stated above, many women feel it completely unnecessary to change anything in their monthly halachic processes. However, for those that do, and from my experience as a sex therapist who works with many religious couples across the spectrum of observance, this is a not inconsequential number, we must find alternatives so there is not a feeling of alienation and anxiety that would keep away women from a process that otherwise they would gladly maintain.
These women must be afforded an alternative to have a solely female experience as they undergo the rituals, and sometimes challenges, relating to Taharat Hamishpachah.