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What do I risk if I go to the mikveh? What do I risk if I don’t go?

The angry and hurting women confronting these impossible life-or-death questions deserve a response, though I don't have all the answers
Illustrative. Holding hands. (Getty Images/ Jewish News)
Illustrative. Holding hands. (Getty Images/ Jewish News)

The question of mikvah usage during the COVID-19 forces the mikveh-using community to confront a new, unprecedented reality. Many of us who are grappling with questions of life and death are doing so (thank God) for the first time in our lives. This is made more difficult by the constant changing of the facts on the ground and the guidelines released by government health organizations. Many mikveh users find themselves bewildered and terrified of making a choice that could cost them their health, and even God forbid their lives (not to mention endangering their families and broader community. We must not forget that this virus is a public health crisis and one infected person can spread the virus to countless others.) I do not pretend to have any answers to these questions. And yet I find myself writing this piece because the enormity of the anger and pain surrounding these questions merits a response. 

In order to have an open and honest conversation, we must confront a truth that many of us are trying to avoid making metaphoric eye contact with: a woman cannot exit the status of niddah without immersing in a mikveh or natural body of water. Once a woman has experienced a flow of blood and is in a status of niddah, there is no alternative. And so, once this becomes her reality, she has two options: immerse and risk possible exposure to the virus, or refrain from immersing and be unable to resume sexual contact with her partner. 

Both of these options, to put it bluntly, stink. And they put women having to make this choice in a very difficult, if not impossible, position. Below is my attempt to articulate the mechanisms behind these two choices and clarify a lot of the confusion surrounding them.

If she chooses to immerse

The current data suggests that the virus does not survive in properly treated water, which means that the risk of exposure at the mikveh is not from the pool itself, but from shared surfaces and air droplets. In order to minimize these risks as much as possible, many mikvaot have developed extremely strict guidelines, in accordance with recommendations from the CDC and the Department of Health. These recommendations include: 

  • Not allowing women under quarantine or experiencing any symptoms to immerse
  • Not allowing any preparation to be done on the premises
  • Not providing any towels or preparation supplies
  • Providing attendants masks and gloves and instructing them to adhere to proper social distancing at all times
  • Fully sanitizing all surfaces in between immersions
  • Limiting and staggering immersions to minimize the risk of exposure 

If a woman immerses in a mikveh that is adhering to these guidelines properly, she should be able to arrive at the door, be shown a room without having to touch anything, undress, immerse, dry off with her own towels, dress, and leave. No one can guarantee that she will not be exposed, but these procedures greatly limit the likelihood that she will be.

If she chooses not to immerse

A woman should absolutely not immerse if she does not feel safe doing so, or if she is immuno-compromised and it is unsafe for her to go. Unfortunately, there is not much halachic leeway to allow her and her partner to resume sexually intimate contact. However, there is room to explore the option of non-sexually intimate contact that is for purposes of comfort and not sexual stimulation. I do not feel that it is my place to make halachic decrees in this forum, and so I suggest that she and her partner speak with their local halachic adviser (I am also happy to speak if they would like.)

Why Can’t We Find Halachic Alternatives?

Understandably, much of the upset over the question of closing the mikvehs is directed at the (male) rabbinic establishment. Many women feel that men have found halachic work-arounds with Zoom minyanim and kaddish, while women have been left to make impossible choices without rabbinic support. I deeply regret that circumstances have led to these feelings, and it is imperative that rabbis not only hear, but truly listen, to what these women are alleging. 

That being said, unfortunately the question of mikveh is not on the same halachic plane as kaddish on Zoom. The requirement to immerse after a flow of blood is d’Orayta (from the Torah), which means that there isn’t really halachic leeway to find work-arounds or massage reality to fit the mold we so desperately wish it would. There are faint murmurings of trying to find a way for a woman to immerse in a swimming pool or jacuzzi, but the halachot of mikveh are exceedingly complicated and these solutions are very difficult to arrive at. Another possible solution is immersion in a natural body of water that is considered kosher for immersion, but it is not clear that these circumstances are necessarily safer. If a woman is exploring this option she should do so under the guidance of someone who has a clear understanding of that body of water and any potential risks involved.

So What Now?

I am so sorry to say that there is no one solution to this terrible situation. Every woman must make the choice that feels best for her. In the meantime, I suggest a list of ways that we can support each other as women, as community members, and, if applicable, as community leaders:

  • It is incumbent on a woman’s partner, her halachic adviser, and her community to support whatever decision she makes
  • It is incumbent on every mikveh to fully understand the recommendations as informed by the CDC and take every possible measure to ensure that immersing in their mikveh is as safe as possible. If they are unable to meet those standards, it is their responsibility to say so honestly and without shame, and close immediately
  • It is incumbent on all of us to respect each other’s pain, fears, and anger
  • It is also incumbent on us to recognize that our experience is our own, and other women may feel differently. As much as one woman may fervently believe that all mikvaot should shut down, another woman may fervently believe that they must stay open (as long as it is approved by the CDC). Our decisions are our own, and we cannot make other people’s decisions for them.

A Caution to Rabbis

It is difficult for me to know how much to include myself in this category, but lest I appear to recuse myself from responsibility, I will speak about this point in the first person:

We must not ignore the anger and frustration that has been expressed towards us in these conversations. It has become quite clear that many of our constituents do not trust us; in fact, some believe that we care only about our own religious privileges, with no regard for their safety or anguish. Though I do not believe that these allegations are entirely justified in this particular conversation, we dare not dismiss them. This moment should serve as an opportunity for serious cheshbon hanefesh (introspection) as we reflect on what attitudes and behaviors have brought us to this moment. 

I am always available to speak about these issues at MaharatRuth@ostns.org

About the Author
Maharat Ruth Friedman serves as Maharat at Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue® in Washington, DC. Maharat Friedman’s responsibilities include overseeing the conversion program, supervising the operation of the community mikvah, directing adult education, providing pastoral counseling, teaching in the community, and more. She is a proud member of the Washington Boards of Rabbis, and sits on the Executive Committee of the board of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, of which she is also a member. Maharat Friedman is also a founding member of the Beltway VAAD. She and her husband Yoni are the proud parents of their sons, Ezra and Jobe, and their rambunctious dog, Cocoa.
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