Mikvah

I first learned what a mikvah was when I was on my mission. The Church came out with some (short-lived) discussions directed to Jews, and I got a copy. There was a glossary volume, and one of the things it explained was the mikvah. The word mikvah is Hebrew for a collection (of water) and is a ritual purifying immersion (something we can relate to, with ourown ablutions, such as baptism and various temple washings). I was reminded of this by an article in today’s Chicago Tribune (be sure to check out the video).

Proselytes to Orthodox Judaism must undergo a mikvah; cooking utensils purchased from a gentile must be purified in one prior to use for food; and men will purify themselves before the holidays, before Shabbat, and in some traditions on a daily basis. (Classically it was also necessary for nocturnal emissions.) But the main use of the mikvah is by women: following the seven-day period after menstruation, following childbirth, before a wedding.

These rules mean that an observant, orthodox Jewish couple abstains from touching each other (yes, this includes sex) for about two weeks each month (the period itself and the seven days following). One of the interesting things in the article is that the mikvah, which in modern constructions is a lot like a spa, is a place filled with sexual tension, because most of the women leave the pool to return once again to their husbands. I knew a rabbi who used to like to compare this to a monthly honeymoon, which is a very positive way to look at it.

I also found it interesting that, whereas women of an earlier generation tended to see the mikvah as an anachronism, Jewish feminist women have rediscovered it and see it as a way of marking all sorts of life changes. As the article relates:

Today Jewish women use the mikvah to mark a variety of milestones: menopause, hysterectomy, recovery from illness, divorce, a new job. At Anshe Sholom, one woman visited the spa-like space after leaving an abusive relationship.

So what do you think? Is this one where you feel some sacred envy, or is it better appreciated from afar? Does anyone miss our 19th century practice of rebaptism, for instance?

Comments

  1. I think we have this to an extent in Temple Baptisms, if we’d take advantage of it (It is my favorite part of the Temple.) I find the idea of Mikvah to be fascinating. I initially learned of the Mikvah in an Anti-Mormon tract which said Corinthians was “Else why else are they Mikvahed for the Dead” but contextually, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it was one of the more plausible anti-mormon statements I’d read and got me very interested in the mikvah.

    Man, I’d love to see those jewish discussions. That would be really cool.

  2. I just recently happened to have read over some documents from Brigham Young outlining how one should not go to the Temple within a week of having marital congress and that women should wait a week after her menstrual cycle to attend the temple.

    I read an article about ritual purity in the Christian Orthodox tradition that was not dissimilar and I have since thought it would be fun to research the topic for a paper.

  3. …I should also probably add that I have found references for performing circumcisions at the Endowment House and a certain apostle preaching against the consumption of pork…

  4. As far as I have been able to uncover rebaptism in Mormonism is typically to show a renewal of commitment, a new beginning, or for healing. While the Church no longer officially sanctions it, I know of no prohibition against a father performing the ordinance for his family members.

  5. Kevin, could you explain this line:

    “These rules mean that an observant, orthodox Jewish couple abstains from touching each other (yes, this includes sex)…”

    Is there something I haven’t yet learned about sex–that it’s possible to engage in it without touching?

    Other than that confusing line, what a wonderful post! I want to learn more about Mikvah.

  6. Truthseeker, there absolutely is a prohibition on re-baptism in the church, even if performing the ordinance for family members.

  7. MikeInWeHo says:

    My religious (Jewish) friends at work seem to hold these matters quite sacred and it is seldom discussed. Fascinating topic, though. Contemporary Mikvahs sure look a lot like baptismal fonts.

    There’s a nice Wiki entry on the Mikvah here.

  8. I find it interesting to note how often I read of groups of people who at one time snubbed religious traditions as “sexist”, or “oppressive” are finding that they have value, after all. Not everyone returns, but I find it interesting to note that some do.

    MRKH

  9. I do have some holy-envy regarding the Mikvah. I find the ritual very beautiful- like so much of Judaism.

  10. I gotta have me some marital congress.

  11. TMI

  12. An excommunicant is getting rebaptized on Saturday in my ward.

  13. Apart from the obvious, that we do have an opportunity torenew our baptismal covenants weekly, I really have little regard for this kind of ritual-envy.

    The grass-is-greener approach says more about one’s relationship with the rituals available in their own community than the value of those in another’s. I would group it with any number of other manifestations of someone’s desire for increased authenticity and/or attachment to a community or group. No different than when one discovers a possible “Cherokee princess” in their distant ancestry and suddenly starts wearing feathers and listening to powwwow music.

    It says nothing about the ritual/custom itself, but it sure says a heck-of-a-lot about the how comfortable one is in their own cultural and religious skin.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Margaret, the antecedent to this is meant to be the abstention inherent in the verb abstains. What I meant is that a couple may neither touch each other nor (a fortiori) engage in sexual relations.

  15. --I am I-- says:

    @Kevin (#14)

    Man, I know you are trying to clarify (the meaning was clear enough for me both times), but I rather suspect that you’ve muddled the waters with your response. Simply put: they weren’t allowed to have sex. Not only that, they couldn’t even touch each other (holding hands or kissing or anything!).

    Would drive me buggy.

  16. Kevin, this is a fascinating topic. While I find many cleansing rites ranging from Japanese bath rituals to our own washings and anointings interesting, I have to admit that the idea of women needing to be cleansed from their reproductive functions does not resonate with me. I like many of the modern uses of the mikvah though. Those interesting in further reading on the feminist critique and rethinking of the mikvah might enjoy reading this.

    Stapley, do you have any idea whether the context of the BY quote is addressing live ordinances or temple attendance in general? I’ve looked and haven’t found much else on the topic, but wondered if there were any RS teachings on this form of temple prep. Also, re: your # 3, if we think of early Mormonism as a judiazing project , perhaps we should look at Jewish rituals more closely and not just Christian ideas of rebaptism, water-cure movement, etc.

    Finally, Joan Branham’s “Bloody Women and Bloody Spaces: Menses and the Eucharist in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages” is a really fascinating read which provokes some interesting questions vis a vis the BY quote. (Readers who can’t look at the word “menstruant” without screaming “Ewwww” probably shouldn’t click on the link)

  17. I’ve heard references that fasting is supposed to exclude “Marital Congress” as well. Not that I’ve followed that particular interpretation (I know, I know, TMI).

    But along those lines, isn’t fasting supposed to serve a similar function in Mormonism as the Mikvah? Rededication, purification, etc.

  18. Mark B. says:

    Actually, Margaret, you’ve asked the wrong person. Bill Clinton is the world’s expert on the subject–although he was working the “how to touch without having sex” angle–so you should have asked him.

    As to the abstention from sex for up to two weeks every month–it’s little wonder, as Kevin suggests, that the mikvah is a place brimming with sexual tension. It’s also little wonder that the birth rates among orthodox Jews is high–the monthly “honeymoon” the rabbi refers to would occur at about the peak of the wife’s fertility.

    Ronan’s musing about “congress” brings up one of my favorite thought experiments: what if “congress” rather than “intercourse” had become the preferred euphemism for sexual relations? In the 18th century, it seems that both terms, modified with the adjective “sexual” were used. Now you cannot say “intercourse” without a raised eyebrow (even when talking of our favorite town in Pennsylvania), but what if we got the same reaction when you said “congress”? (All sorts of comedic possibilities come to mind–most of them not really appropriate for this family blog.)

  19. Actually, since the opposite of the prefix “Pro” is “Con”, then the opposite of progress is Congress.

  20. Mark B. says:

    BruceC

    As to the fasting “exclusion,” my proposed response is:

    I eat three times a day. So, giving up one day a month isn’t a big deal. Were “marital congress” to occur with that same frequency, I’d be happy to give it up for one day a month.

  21. 16: kris, I’m wondering if an abundance of water and the ability to immerse oneself in fresh water in a warm, dusty environment where the washing of feet was a high form of hospitality might not have been a pleasure, a right that women looked forward to claiming, knowing that it couldn’t be taken away from them by men without their husbands having to suffer the consequences. It could be a reward, a huge blessing, rather than a stigma, no?

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    15 I Am I, yes, what you said is what I tried (awkwardly) to say.

  23. Ardis, bathing is always a pleasure. Having to bathe because my reproductive blood make me “unclean” in a ritual or spiritual sense is not.

  24. Kris, I personally feel that it is a bit unclear. However, all the citations specifically address those preparing to receive their endowment.

  25. Mark B. says:

    Does it matter, Kris, if our objections to the word “menstruant” arise not because of its menstrual roots but because it seems a linguistic abomination?

  26. Mark B., feel free to object on linguistic grounds. I happen to hate the use of “impact” as a verb, so to each his/her own.

  27. Mark B. says:

    Kris, I’m with you on both. In fact, I’m happy to ban “impact” altogether from every instance not involving a physical collision. And don’t get me started on barbarisms like “impactful.” (If we can just get people to stop talking about impactful menstruants, I’ll die happy.)

  28. Why did the LDS Church stop performing rebaptism for members who remain in good standing (i.e., not after leaving and coming back)? It seems that if it were kept somewhat limited and special (rather than just being scrapped), it could be a meaningful sacrament for adults at different times in their lives.

    #19 — ha, cute pun, Bruce. Actually the con from PROs/CONs is short for contra (“against”), which is a different Latin prefix from con (“with”). So the opposite of progress is contragress (or retrogress) rather than congress.

  29. Hamer, Kris and I go into this quite a bit in our forthcoming paper in the fall JMH. Basically from a period between 1893 and 1897 the governing quorums began to feel that people were getting baptized “for the renewal of covenants” too frequently, which reduced the sacred nature of the ritual. During this period it all but died out except for cases of church discipline, which lasted into the 1920’s. Baptism for health lasted until 1922, when after the death of President Lund the Grant administration reformed the liturgy of the Church (especially the temple and healing liturgies).

  30. 6. and 29. Hi J. Stapley I was wondering if there was some paper on the history of rebaptism, I found Quinn’s 1978 BYU Studies article. Do you have a reference for the prohibition? Is it prohibited in the Church and the family? Or just in the Church? I know families who practice it on the QT.

  31. In biblical and early post-biblical times, the mikveh was for men as well, whenever they became ritually unclean. It’s not a gender-specific thing per se. Sex, nocturnal emissions, certains kinds of sicknesses, touching a corpse or touching other unclean things all rendered men ritually unclean.

  32. Truthseeker, the only folks I am aware of that practice re-baptism are fundies. The prohibition is definitely to all situations. Look for Kris and my paper in the forthcoming fall issue of JMH. We cite all the major previous treatments and loads of primary sources previously unpublished. The most common primary source referred to in the cessation of baptism for the renewal of covenants is George Q. Cannon, October 6, 1897, Conference Report, 68.

  33. Here is a question. What is the current policy of performing baptisms for the dead while menstruating?

    As a young beehive, I was denied the opportunity to perform baptisms on my first temple trip because I was menstruating. The girls were asked as a group by a temple matron if they were menstruating. As an embarrassed 12 year old, I raised my hand. I had brought tampons because in my mind, it was just like going swimming. Interestingly enough, I don’t recall ever having the same question asked in other temple trips.

    It was unclear to me then if it was doctrinal or legal or what. This was 15 years ago in St George if that makes a difference.

  34. Cole, that was surely an aberrant matron.

  35. JA Benson says:

    J Stapley and anyone else,
    Marylee Mitchum and I are going to be speaking about the Sephardic Jewish influence in the early LDS Church at the Sunstone Symposium on Friday Evening titled _Adventures in DNA_. If you are there, come by and say HI.

  36. Sounds like a very fun project and I would like to meet you, but unfortunately won’t be there.

  37. Melanie2 says:

    33 and 34: I had a similar experience as a YW in Los Angeles around the same time. We were not allowed to do baptisms but could do confirmations–so maybe it was an overzealous matron worried about Beehives using tampons correctly? I have since commiserated with friends who had the same thing happen to them in other temples, so there must have been a handful of aberrant temple workers at the time.

  38. Or using tampons at all. The question/direction was not “If you are menstruating and uncomfortable using a tampon.”

  39. Wow. I’ve never heard of that one. The only question the matrons had for us was did we bring and extra pair of white underware.

  40. Mark B. says:

    I’m not sure how aberrant that was. I think, in fact, that it used to be common, and I don’t know the reason.

  41. Kevin, thank you the write up and link to the Video. From reading the 40 comments, I believe I am closest to this ritual(?)
    In the mornings, (due to some very bad legs), I go ‘water walking’ at the YMCA. After a few minutes, I am young again, my pains are gone. I feel the renewal. I feel goodness happening to me. I feel the comfort of the warm water, and hope for a better day.

  42. Cynthia L. says:

    #33–That happened to me the first few times I went to do baptisms. This was at the Oakland Temple, early 90s. Luckily the the timing always worked out and it was never an issue (so to speak) for me. But seems like every trip there were a couple girls sitting it out.

  43. For a minute there, I thought I was on FMH.

  44. Mark, unfortunately, not all aberration is uncommon.

  45. I love the description of mikveh in The Ladies’ Auxiliary. Holy envy, yes.

  46. Ray,
    LOL!
    Is menstruation a taboo topic at BCC? I guess that could be a post in itself.
    And, yes, when I was in YW (15 years ago) there was policy at the Mesa temple against girls doing baptisms while menstruating.
    It was very embarrassing to have to answer the deacons and teachers who kept asking, “Why is your hair dry? Didn’t you do baptisms? That’s why we came here!”
    Can anyone verify that that policy/practice has changed?

  47. Latter-day Guy says:

    RE 33, 37, 42,

    Were the girls in question allowed to do confirmations, or was it viewed as a kind of “ritually unclean” thing?

  48. I believe the policy / whatever was in place at the Oakland Temple in the mid to late 70’s also, Cynthia.

  49. Cynthia L. says:

    L-dG: As far as I know confirmations were ok.

  50. 33

    I understood this was a hygiene issue.

    The last time we took a group to the temple, about halfway through the sessions they stopped us to say that the system which detects organic contaminants in the water had set off the alarm. They ended the session and told us that no more baptisms were be performed until they changed the water. None of the remaining kids were able to be baptized that day.

    I would assume that the menstruation question is to avoid having to repeatedly stop and refill the font.

  51. LOL about wondering if we were in FMH! I hadn’t thought about this in a few years, but the parallels with Mikvah brought the memories back loud and clear. Come to think of it, I think I could put together a stellar guest post regarding fringy rules/advice for women surrounding female reproduction at the temple. My pre-endowment lecture wasn’t much better.

    I was allowed to do confirmations… but had all of the same experience with the boys asking me why my hair was dry and asking if I was afraid of the water.

    But I am not sure I fully buy the hygiene in the sense that have you ever smelt the chlorine at the font? It is worse than the public swimming pool! Any bad organic contaminants (which really, again, you want to equate menstruating to contaminants) except for maybe a log of feces should be taken care of with the chlorine.

  52. Mark B. says:

    The last time I remember the subject coming up, the elderly sister whose husband was in charge was trying to whisper to him that all was ok, because the young lady in question was “using a tampon.” I think everybody but her husband could hear her stage whisper. He just said “Hunhh?” so she repeated herself, a little louder. Finally on about the fourth time he understood, and his only response was, “Well, OK.”

    I presume, J. Stapley, that you mean that if the practice were general throughout the entire church, it could be an aberration from the will of God. I suppose so, but that would require me to believe that God actually has a “will” on this subject. It may, though, fall in to the category of things to do “as seemeth thee good.”

  53. Mark, I was trying (unsuccessfully) to by funny a bit. The reason I say this seemingly widespread policy was abberation, does not have to do with implications of God’s will (though it very well might). I just don’t believe there was any centralized policy from the Church on the topic. I am aware that keeping temple policies from unauthorized expansion on temple presidency or regional basis is quite challenging.

  54. …and please, I think we can leave it at “feces,” no further descriptors required.

  55. “log” was too much?!? Ha.

    (I guess it seems normal given the topics that are front and center when you are home all day with diapered babies and potty learning toddlers.)

  56. Fwiw, much of this really is an issue (sorry, no better word available) if tampons aren’t being used – and that wasn’t nearly as common with teenage girls years ago as it is now. (and still isn’t close enough to universal for those attending the temple to make it not be a concern, especially for older workers)

  57. Jennifer in GA says:

    A few weeks back, my husband and I helped chaperone a stake youth temple trip. My youngest brother was on the same trip, so my mother sent along some family file names for us. The Baptistry director was kind enough to let me do the baptisms and confirmations for the women, while my brother did the work for the men.

    Since there were some other female chaperones there, I slipped around to the main part of the temple to see if I could get the initiatory work done while the youth finished their baptisms.

    I have to say that after doing the baptisms, confirmations and initiatory work for seven of my ancestors, one right after another, I very much felt cleansed and purified. Although I love participating in the Endowment, it doesn’t feel as personal as some of the other ordinances, especially if you are participating by proxy. There is just something about hearing the words of the initiatory ordinance that brings such peace and power into your soul, all at the same time.

  58. It used to be a rule in many temples, from what I remember and have been told, but it has been done away with. The rule no longer exists, at least to my knowledge. By the time I was sixteen, (I am 29 now) no one ever asked about menstration, though they did the first four years I went to the temple to do baptisms.

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