Fifteen years ago, I underwent surgery to remove a lung tumor. The only reminder of that traumatic time is a long, now silvery, scar on my back. And the only time I see it is in the full-length mirror of the mikva.
Thankfully, I have been able to make peace with both the experience and the scar, yet for many women, this monthly ritual is a poignant reminder of the various scars on their bodies and souls.
The mikva brings us face to face with all of our experiences and opens up everything. Body image, negative self-esteem, sexual abuse, infertility, pregnancy loss, marital strife are just some of the issues that might be reflected back to a woman in the clear mirror of the mikva. For some people this clarity is inspiring, for others, it is triggering.
It’s not a topic people broach openly. Yet from the classes I teach, social media forums, and conversations with therapists, it has become clear to me that the distaste that some women feel for this ritual stems not necessarily from the mikva itself, but from the many painful experiences it brings up.
And then there is the language. The Torah laws of taharat hamishpacha are usually translated into English as “family purity.” Many find the connotations of impurity and dirt unsettling.
In fact, the concepts of tuma (impurity) and tahara (purity) have nothing to do with hygiene and are instead spiritual states, focused on the tension between life and death.
The Hebrew word tahara, usually translated as “purity,” is associated with the word tzohar – a translucent window or gemstone. It is a spiritual state of clarity, in which we are connected to God as the source of life and have a clear spiritual experience of Him. Thus, in the Torah the state of tahara primarily relates to the Temple service. The Temple created an environment for the clearest experience of Divine Presence and everyone entering it or partaking in the service had to be spiritually aligned with this experience.
In contrast, the Hebrew word tuma usually translated as “impurity,” comes from the word atum – sealed. It is a spiritual state of being “closed off,” disconnected from the Divine life-source. Any contact with death dampens our ability to experience the Divine Presence with clarity. Consequently, in Torah law a dead body is the primary source of tuma.
So how do these concepts transfer over to the mikva?
On a personal level, the mikva is a reflection of our internal state. Our life journeys bring all of us face to face with times of pain and darkness. God’s Divine light is hidden in these moments and we feel less alive. In particularly traumatic experiences something inside of us “dies.” Yet the purpose of the concealment is the revelation. It is only that which we have experienced, that we can fix. God yearns for us to heal from that darkness and by extension to heal His entire world.
The first step to healing is recognizing and naming the issue. And so the mikva is a monthly opportunity for self-reflection and a guide to the healing work that is ahead. As the waters of the mikva embrace the body, it is as if God is opening His embrace, accepting and validating all of our experiences and hurts. It is as if He is whispering to us, “My child, there is nothing I want more than for you to feel whole again. You are not broken! Come, let’s find together the path to your wonderful self.”
Yet, the clarity of the mikva goes beyond the individual. In its ideal, the Jewish home is both a precursor and the extension of the Holy Temple. The Ramban in his introduction to the Book of Exodus presents the tents of our forefathers and foremothers as the pinnacle of Divine presence and the Tabernacle as a “reenactment,” a vehicle for bringing back that Divine presence to the newly-established Jewish nation.
Other commentators point out that the miracles of the Tabernacle and the Temple paralleled the three miracles, which the Midrash lists as present in Sarah’s tent. The Temple showbread was reminiscent of the blessing in Sarah’s dough. The ever-present western candle on the menora was a throwback to Sarah’s Shabbat candles, which stay lit from Friday to Friday. The cloud tied to the tent symbolized God’s presence, as it did in the Temple.
By extension, the Jewish home, not the synagogue, is the central religious institution of Judaism. The cardinal mitzvot, perceived as signs of Jewish observance, Shabbat, kashrut, and taharat hamishpacha, are practiced in the home and parallel the miracles of Sarah’s tent. As we have seen during the months of the Covid-19 pandemic, even as the synagogues, the study halls, and the schools stayed closed, Jewish families continued to lead vibrant religious lives at home.
Just like the Holy Temple, the Jewish home at its ideal, provides an environment conducive to experiencing the Divine Presence. The holiest part of the Temple, the Holy of Holies is also called “the bedroom,” while the Sages of the Talmud in numerous sources compare the posture of the chruvim in the Holy of Holies to a couple’s embrace.
Like Temple service, sexual intimacy ideally requires spiritual alignment, a state of spiritual clarity – tahara. Since intimacy is the most basic building block of a family, the lifeforce which distinguishes a family relationship between a man and a woman from every kind of other social engagement, and gives life to all other members of the family, it is only natural that it should be the focal point of these laws.
Far from technical ritual, the mikva is a tool for clarity. The clarity that can guide us in healing as individuals. The clarity that can help us bring God’s presence into our homes, by aligning the most intimate family moments with God’s will, as expressed in the laws of the Torah. By practicing the laws of taharat hamishpacha, a couple affirms that they want all members of the family to be connected to a state of spiritual clarity, with a clear sense of Divine presence.
Maybe it is time to move away from discussing “family purity” and start talking about “family clarity” instead. So that we can concentrate on the real goal – aligning our halachic practices with the experience of Divine Presence and closeness.