At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, in March, I wrote about going to mikvah for the first time since the pandemic. I was horrified to discover that the mikvah near me was clearly not keeping guidelines. This was especially egregious because in Israel, mikvahs are publicly funded institutions. Additionally, a lack of rabbinic creativity and leadership on the issue meant that my two basic options were mikvah or celibacy, despite the virus raging all around us. As Israel goes into its second lockdown, I want to reflect a little on my additional coronavirus mikvah experiences. I’ve gone back to the same mikvah twice since my initial time in March, including once since the most recent lockdown. Here are my thoughts:
- It’s clear to me that my local mikvah is accepting walk-ins, in addition to taking appointments. But it’s also clear that, unlike in March, they do take appointments and aren’t surprised when you make one. They also have a sign at the mikvah informing women that they should call for appointments in advance.
- The mikvah attendants wear their masks around their chins, in violation of government guidelines. This makes me nervous, because they are the ones who are spending the entire night in the various parts of the mikvah: the changing rooms, the waiting room, and the mikvah bath itself. I immerse in the mikvah without a mask, and I don’t like being inside a room with another person where we’re both not wearing masks. For me to wear a mask in the mikvah wouldn’t be possible, because for the immersion to be valid, the water needs to touch all parts of my body -including my face.
- It’s pretty much impossible to avoid touching mikvah surfaces, such as railings. Because you’re only wearing a towel for part of the time, it’s also not like you can use the corner of your shirt to avoid touching things with your bare fingers. I sanitize my hands immediately when I get back to the changing room, and then wash my hands and shower when I get home. I also am careful to follow government guidelines do all of my pre-mikvah preparations at home.
- The door to the mikvah building is open, so women don’t have to touch the door handle, and also, have the option of waiting outside in the mikvah courtyard while still being able to talk to the mikvah attendant. Every time I’ve gone, I’ve seen women going in and out of changing rooms, but I’ve never seen anyone waiting inside the mikvah waiting room. There is either nobody waiting around at all, or 2-4 people waiting around outside the building. But I wonder what will happen when winter comes and women don’t want to wait outside.
- The mikvah attendants are respectful and do wait two meters apart, only entering the room as I get into the mikvah water. But once, one of the attendants put a towel on top of my head when I said the blessing for immersing in the mikvah. I wasn’t consulted about this decision. It was not direct physical contact, but it was definitely more contact than I wanted during coronavirus times. Actually, it bothers me when mikvah attendants do this even when there isn’t a global pandemic.
- Does this feel safer to me than other things that I do? Not really. Since I work/study from home at the moment, I only leave the house for medical appointments, where I am wearing a mask the whole time, and can generally avoid touching direct surfaces. The staff are also wearing masks the whole time, though mask wearing from other patients in the waiting room varies. The other reason I leave the house is to go for a walk or meet friends outside (within 1 kilometer, less than 20 people, in keeping with lockdown rules) and even then, I wear a mask. So being inside, in a room with someone, with neither of us wearing masks, still feels risky to me, even if we’re not both inside the room at the same time for more than a few minutes.
- Why did I go back to the mikvah? I had other halachic options: Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a well-respected Sefardi rabbi, issued a psak that because of the coronavirus, under certain circumstances, women could immerse in a bathtub instead of going to mikvah, provided the bathwater covered their bodies completely. Maybe I wanted to go to mikvah because I like having a clear demarcation between niddah and non-niddah status. Maybe, despite believing in the halachic validity of Rabbi Amsalem’s psak, I was unable to undo years of conditioning of having it ingrained in me that to not go to mikvah is the worst, the gravest sin. I refuse to use the word “lenient” to describe Rabbi Amsallem’s opinion, because I don’t think his opinion is more lenient. It is, if anything, stricter on matters of pikuach nefesh (saving lives) and shalom bayit (preserving peace in the home). I still can’t articulate exactly what my reasons were. But I’m okay with that, because I think that to be human is to not always know what our reasons are, or why we feel what we feel. I don’t demand consistency from my religious experiences.
- Why did I go back to this mikvah? In part, because a friend told me they had gone to this mikvah and it had felt safe. They had spoken to the attendant, and been reassured it passed an inspection and was keeping guidelines. That made me feel ready to take another chance, to see if the mikvah had improved since March. But also: It’s my local mikvah. I know the mikvah attendant by now, because I’ve been going there for 5 years. She smiles when she sees me. She never asks me annoying questions, or makes me feel like she’s judging me for being less ultra-Orthodox than she is. She always wishes me well. For me, part of the mikvah experience is those little interactions. In order for me to feel comfortable in a mikvah, it does need to feel a bit like a home — after all, I am getting undressed there. I have gone to other mikvahs in Jerusalem at various points, for various reasons, and never found one that felt right to me.
So is it safe to go to mikvah during the coronavirus pandemic? I’m not sure I can give a definitive answer to that question, both because my experience is limited to my local mikvah, and because I’m not an epidemiologist. However, as with so many things with the coronavirus, the question of “Is it safe?” may not have a definitive answer. Instead, it’a about balance of risks — and the risks will vary depending on the individual circumstance. It depends on so many factors: the specific mikvah’s coronavirus policies and how well they are implemented; the behaviors of the individual mikvah attendants; who else happens to show up that night; national and local COVID-19 rates; your own individual risk factors and medical history.
I certainly think that the message that going to mikvah is safe as long as the mikvah follows government guidelines is inadequate, because there is a lack of oversight to ensure that mikvahs are actually following guidelines. But I also think that the message that women are risking themselves and others by going to mikvah is simplistic; it really depends on the specific situation. Both of these messages deprive women of personal autonomy, instead of trusting them to make responsible, informed decisions about their bodies.
So, as we have just finished bringing in the new year, let’s all pray for a happy and healthy year, in which we are finally able to put this pandemic behind us. But let’s also work to make it a year where we respect women’s bodily autonomy, when it comes to religion, baths, and everything in between.