Under Jewish law a married woman is required to immerse in a mikvah, a mostly natural body of water, post menstruation and prior to resuming marital relations. This act is one of spiritual cleansing going from religious impurity to pious purity.
A mikvah is also used by men who require spiritual purification and there are some Hasidic men who immerse daily prior to morning prayers. Unlike men, women are supervised in their use of a mikvah by a female attendant who oversees the ritual seeing to it that the attendee follows the steps required of the ritual for dipping. As a result, a woman’s use of a mikvah may be perceived as a more stringent exercise of familial purity and an exceedingly small minority see it as chauvinistic. Still, regular attendance at a mikvah following menstruation is part of the requirements for an Orthodox Jewish woman and how women feel about their mikvah attendance is worthy of understanding.
Anecdotes about women and their mikvah attendance are plentiful. Many women have described their use of the mikvah ritual as a spiritually uplifting and enjoyable experience. But others reportedly see it as burdensome and unpleasant to the point where some pretend to attend a mikvah but often surreptitiously avoid the ritual.
From anecdotes come hypotheses and from there the search for data. To ascertain the factors that contribute to the mikvah experience for women, both positive and negative, Naomi Rosenbach, Leora Levine and I conducted a survey that evaluated the collective experiences women who used a mikvah had.
Three hundred sixty-eight women responded to our confidential online survey. Sixty-one percent of the respondents reported a pleasurable experience at their mikvah. Comments from this group indicated a sense of spiritual growth and devoutness. Another twenty-one percent were neutral about their experiences. This group tended to see regular mikvah use as just another religiously proscribed activity that was neither a burden nor uplifting but simply a religious obligation. A significant percent of the respondents, 18%, indicated that their experience at a mikvah was unpleasant. This group listed several specific reasons for their negative experiences. Among those reasons were a sense that the attendants were too intrusive or showed a lack of respect toward them. Concomitantly attendants were sometimes viewed as being not as knowledgeable in the religious dictates and as a result took an excessively stringent approach to the ritual which made the women who reported negative experiences uncomfortable. None indicated that they felt that the mikvah experience was misogynistic.
Eleven percent of the respondents acknowledged a history of abuse which may correlate with a negative experience in a mikvah situation based upon their historical triggers. Interestingly the rate of abuse reported is lower than the one in four anticipated by other reported research. This may be a factor to a greater extent in the overall indifferent and negative response rates. Mikvah use for women is a physically revealing process. For some of the women surveyed this physical vulnerability may underly feelings about the ritual. If some women were not forthcoming about their abuse history or had developed a coping strategy to overcome the triggers of abuse than their reporting may have been incomplete. Additionally, marital expectations may play into the process as it is anticipated that following mikvah use sexual relations resume. All of this has led us to follow this thread in more detail in a number of upcoming survey reports.
The title of the journal article is “What impacts Jewish orthodox womens’ mikvah experience?” and is available at the Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought