Creation, Mikvah and Personal Autonomy

The past couple of days have turned a bright spotlight not only on abusive Rabbinic power regarding conversions but also on women’s use of the Mikvah, the ritual bath, in accordance with Taharat Ha’mishpacha, family purity laws.

Mikvah literally means pool in Hebrew with its subroot being kav, line or border. In this past week’s Torah reading of Bereisheet, Genesis, we see the first use of the word mikvah. In Chapter1:10, it states, ‘And God called the dry land earth and the gathering together of the waters, He called Seas; and he saw that is was good.”Here God, through he creative acts of separating, creates a border, a line, to prevent the waters of the earth from overtaking the dry land that would result in chaos, tohu va’vohu, once again.

The idea of borders or limits extends in the Torah text beyond the creation story to the idea of personal autonomy in general. In the legal codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, there are extensive lists of personal boundaries, bodily boundaries, that cannot be crossed. These incest prohibitions extend way beyond our common understanding of improper sexual relationships between parents and children and siblings. The broader list embodies an idea that simply, there are certain lines that should not be crossed or some relationships cross the line of decency and are inherently harmful to the individual and resulting offspring.

The later Rabbis build upon this idea of kav to include not only forbidden relationships but also a system that empowers the individual to maintain and protect her own line, her own borders, her own personality. For example, the prohibition of Lashon HaRah or evil speech is premised on the idea that the individual essentially owns everything about her including information about her. If she chooses to share the information, that is her right. Another person, however, cannot take it or really steal it for her own gain, enjoyment or amusement.

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, Chapter Five, section 10, the Rabbis talk of four different kinds of people. One who says, ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine- is ignorant.’ This person has no respect for anyone’s boundaries at all. ‘One who says, What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours- is the average type but some say this is one who is like a Sodomite.’- This person has her border so tightly closed that she will never help one in need and will never receive help when she needs it.

According to the Midrash, the people of Sodom were so closed off, they didn’t even lend their neighbors a grain of salt. ‘One who says what is mine is yours and what is yours is yours is pious.’ This is the person who owns herself and property and can therefore choose to give it to another without the expectation of reciprocity, without the expectation of the other being allowed to break the other person’s border. The section concludes, ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine is wicked’- This person also does not respect anyone’s boundaries. The Rabbis understood the need for personal autonomy as a starting point for having proper relationships with human beings and also with God. Unlike modern thinkers, the Rabbis didn’t view this autonomy is an end in itself, but rather an important empowering beginning to becoming divine.

I do not think it is an accident that the Mikvah- the water border- is the place to renew our persons in the case of conversion or renew our spousal relationships when it comes to Family Purity. With conversion, the new Jew by choice accepts new boundaries for herself in becoming part of the Jewish people and the new responsibilities her new status entails. With Taharat HaMishpacha, the woman’s immersion allows her husband to literally cross her personal boundaries but on her own proper terms. These sacred boundaries lie at the heart of personhood in the Jewish tradition. Rabbi Freundel’s alleged crimes therefore are all the more upsetting not only for the ‘ick’ factor involved but his actions strike at the very core of personal identity in our tradition.

To be honest, Mikvah use is a mitzvah I have been struggling with since I got married over 22 years ago. The separation from my husband is not the most challenging but the act of actually going can somewhat annoying. I don’t not find the experience spiritually uplifting in the slightest. My goal is always to get in and out as fast as I can, hope there isn’t a line, and pray I don’t see anyone I know.

As a couple and a family you end up planning your entire life around the wife’s Mikvah night. I have rescheduled vacations because of my schedule or because the vacation spot had no nearby Mikvah. Alternatively, I have used a Mikvah in various different places including the Caribbean Ocean and a particularly interesting outdoor Mikvah in Hawaii that resembled a hot tub in a closed off Sukkah.

At home, I have traveled to the Mikvah in two feet of snow, immersed when the hot water wasn’t working in 60 degree water (I don’t recommmend this) and when the power was out. I invariably have to go when we have out-of-town company. Frankly, it is a pain.

So why do I do it? My rationalization kind of goes like this–
If I am in a state of ritual impurity, my husband can’t be with me. If we do choose to be together, he is guilty of a grave sin whose punishment is tantamount to the eternal damnation of his soul. I do not want his soul to be forever damned, so I can choose to give my kindness to him and follow this commandment.’ This might seem like a very convoluted argument but it has worked for me as I can of my own accord breach my boundary–here my comfort zone– to afford a kindness to the person who is most important to me, my husband.

There are lines that should not be crossed or violated. Sacred lines are often broken when people abuse positions of power. In Orthodoxy this dubious distinction resides with male Rabbis.

My own local Mikvah association is overseen by the RCA, a male only body. Additionally, the lay leadership of the Chicago Mikveh Association ONLY has men. Not one woman is on the board. Clearly our Torah and tradition understood the importance of boundaries and put in safeguards to prevent breaches of those lines. It behooves us now to make sure the proper oversight and control of Mikvaot whether for conversion or Family purity use is in the right hands—preferably women. If we don’t, we risk not only preventing further abuse but risk the core of personhood and identity in our tradition. It we do not maintain our sacred lines, we will fall into chaos, tohu va’vohu once again.

About the Author
Marianne lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. Marianne is also a Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutor. I am also a fourth year student at Yeshivat Maharat.
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