Every month or so, tens of thousands of Jewish women plunge themselves into a mikvah and simultaneously into a morass of misogyny, hygiene, and Jewish history.
Judaism is a funny thing - we have so many traditions that have been maintained since their birth in the ancient world. Meanwhile, as modern Jews, we hope to be morally enlightened and exemplary to all humanity. And of course between the two, a couple hundred generations of men have been editing and adjusting our ancient laws, in accordance with surrounding biases and opinions.
The mikvah started out, I think, innocently enough. In the ancient world, two things were extremely common, if not ubiquitous: public bathing and priestly Temple or sacrificial ritual. Cultures as diverse as Japanese and Native American, not to mention the more commonly-cited Egyptian, Greek, Turkish and Roman - all had their versions of these practices. And typically it was important to clean oneself before participating in ancient worship.
Universally, as far as historians can tell, public bathing was a process of first cleaning one's body via scraping, oiling, sweating, soaping, plucking, or other processes. This was followed by a plunge into clean water, often in social groups. It seems reasonable to get as "clean" as possible before hopping in to skinny-dip with your friends.
Something else that has been found to be universal, according to anthropologists, is the cultural "common sense" that bathing/rinsing in fresh rain or running water is considered cleaner than in still waters. Sure, this seems sensible even to modern people, as stagnant pools of water would naturally harbor more harmful microbes.
But the interesting thing is that often "common sense" and "taboo" are not obvious to people from another culture, and taboos are not usually shared across disparate populations. Among the very few shared taboos are those prohibiting certain kinds of incest and those around exclusively rinsing in running water.
In the time of the Jewish Temple, the mikvah was used both for public bathing, and to achieve purity for ritual purposes. In accordance with universal taboo, mikvah design requirements have been fairly constant up through modern times, including a source of fresh running water such as rain-water.
On the other hand, the mikvah's social requirements and meaning have been subject to striking cultural changes over the last few centuries - which have, in my opinion, shifted it into an atavistic tool of misogynistic oppression.
The first major social change pertaining to the mikvah is that men's immersion has been marginalized by the rabbis. Of course, in the ancient world, men used the mikvah to bathe and to become ritually pure. But they were also required to immerse after STI discharge or even semen ejaculation. Oddly, each of these rules for men and mikvah has fallen by the wayside.
Men still have the option to use the mikvah in the modern world, but even very Orthodox Jewish men largely do not feel required to use the mikvah - aside from converts to Judaism, and small cults who take it upon themselves to follow Kabbalistic or other practices of immersing (e.g. before Yom Kippur). This is pretty surprising, considering that anyone who reads the simple text of the Torah can see that men should be immersing after experiencing non-urinary penile flows.
But it's not only men who are now generally excluded from mikvah use. Single women, lesbians, and children are also not invited to the modern use of the mikvah. Sadly, our historic ritual bath has become fetishized around one thing: marital penis-vagina-intercourse.
Which brings us to the third common taboo across cultures, though it is not universal. This, of course, pertains to menstrual blood.
To non-scientific people, a woman bleeding with no injury can seem
scary or powerful, particularly if it is seen in connection with life
beginning or ending. To the men setting the rules, in the time before
feminist enlightenment, menstrual blood must have seemed particularly
These men, the rabbis, dealt with menstruation primarily in the context of heterosexual marriage, and they dealt with vaginas primarily in the context of PVI. It is therefore no surprise that the mikvah's most powerful and lasting legacy has been around controlling women's menstrual cycles and their vaginal environment, in advance of any penis contact. This legacy has gathered strength over the past few hundred years in three categories: (1) frequency, (2) stringency, and (3) misogyny.
(1) Frequency: Evolutionary scientists believe that in pre-agrarian times (confirmed by the study of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies) women did not menstruate as much as they do now. Hunter-gatherer women tend to start menarche a few years later, enter menopause a few years earlier, and breast-feed for longer. This schedule, along with a diet of fewer starches and calories, leads to many fewer periods per lifetime. All of this means that an ancient woman's use of the public bath would have been sometimes related to her period, but mostly not.
In contrast, period-driven mikvah has developed a life of its own in terms of the percentage of women's thoughts that it is supposed to occupy in the 21st century. Modern books, teachers, and even "kallah class" websites go into great detail about how Orthodox Jewish women are going to be doing this mikvah thing constantly - whether planning, preparing, cleaning, immersing, or even just worrying.
In the ancient world, there would not have been time to send multiple queries to the rabbis about the color of underwear stains (who even wore underwear?). I'm not kidding; whole categories of rabbis exist who sit in their offices and specialize at examining women's dirty underwear samples in order to forbid or permit intercourse with the women's husbands - which seems, to me, eminently creepy.
Women who stress out about these issues now have a slightly less masculine source of help - there has been a recent (last two decades) existence of "Yoetzot," women who become halakhically educated in order to be first-line help, often anonymous or online, for curious menstruants and other interested parties. While this is good for women who want to ask questions but won't talk to a man, it's not so great in that it perpetuates an obsessive worry among women that they are never quite pure enough. In the "you can't make this stuff up" category, I read an anonymous question on that site just this week, from a wife wondering if it would contaminate her husband's lunch for her to pack it while menstruating.
One of the saddest parts of cultural misogyny in general, from horrors like foot-binding and female-genital-mutilation, to irritants like Yoetzot and "mikvah ladies", is that oftentimes it is older women in the in-culture who perpetuate hands-on mistreatment of women. If all women were to refuse to be complicit in their own subordination, we could really move forward.
(2) Stringency: For much of Jewish history, the mikvah was the only place you could go to bathe. Men and women would go weekly or monthly, and if a woman had to make a point of going after she had vaginal bleeding from a period or a birth, it would not have been terribly out of the ordinary.
Back in Torah times, once you were done with your nether-region flow, male or female, you could bathe pretty much right away except in cases of illness. And what you did at the mikvah was normal for those days - everyone would scrape and clean, in a way that would need no special instruction because everyone did it before hopping in for the immersion.
Nowadays, that's nowhere near good enough. Books, lists, pamphlets, websites, posters, and classes exist to remind women to do everything from plucking body hair to removing stitches in order to get "clean" enough to enter a mikvah. And never mind how carefully you may have prepared for entrance - some stranger, the "mikvah lady," is going to be looking at you naked to check you out again before you can immerse.
And it's not just immediately before immersion that things have become more demanding. Women are instructed to count up numbers of special days to check for bleeding, monitor their own bleeding and possible bleeding, and even count "clean" days after their periods just to be sure - all the while sticking specially-sold cotton cloths into their vaginas to be able to tell the rabbi what kind of crazy gunk might be up there. Kallah class instructors remind women that "toilet paper doesn't count" and the cloths must be of a particular kind, and used at a particular time of day, and examined in a particular kind of light. Underwear color is subject to instruction, and according to some, so is the color of your sheets.
Shockingly, Orthodox sources use all of these demands to justify that mikvah is "not about cleanliness" because "you have to be totally clean before you enter the mikvah". That seems patently absurd - it's all about perceived female dirtiness and cleanliness, because the poking, checking, washing gate-keeping for the mikvah is a major chapter of the process.
And it's not just a woman's own body that becomes so severely regulated and insulted - it's also her behavior. The wife is not allowed to be touched by her husband or even to eat meals normally with him, during her "impure" time. Husbands are adjured to stay away from their wives during that time of impurity - and that span of time has grown to almost half the month, every month, in accordance with ever stricter rabbinical opinion. Married couples are assumed to be so desperate for sex with each other, and so unreliable though they choose to live by these rules, that even handing your spouse a baby or a glass of water, or sitting together on a bus, could lead to an explosion of impure love-making.
(3) Misogyny: Ok, so how could it be anything other than misogyny for men to make rules about women having to clean themselves really really well to get ready to receive a penis? Particularly when the man could stay just as unclean as he liked. But let's be specific here.
There's the whole category of "rules," to start with, as described above. Those specific and obnoxious instructions to women about cleaning their bodies and checking their vaginal secretions are incredibly invasive and deprive any human of her dignity.
And then, new brides get their own special brand of misogyny, about being careful with their examination cloths - they must not damage their hymens. Which doesn't even make sense, if you believe that vaginal blood is impure, because it creates a terrible wedding night experience: as soon as the lucky groom does break his bride's hymen, he has to go away immediately while she does another preparation and mikvah with no cuddling in the meantime. (I guess the assumption is that he ejaculates immediately upon penetration, or quickly enough that the blood doesn't count. At any rate, not a fun sexual experience for the female half of the couple.)
New mothers get a dose of misogyny too: since amniotic fluid and post-birth discharge all count as vaginal blood, one's husband is often forbidden to offer any physical or emotional support during labor, delivery, or the post-partum period.
And then there's the sexist fact that per the rabbis, an individual woman mustn't be scientific or take over her own analysis about these things. (And the instructions in kallah books say this over and over: don't try to determine things yourself because you need a rabbi.)
The fundamental proof that mikvah is about controlling women, and not about any kind of spiritual purity is that a woman's reward for following all of the intrusive mikvah steps is that all of a sudden, stains "don't count" the same way after immersion. After a woman is finally pronounced clean and ready to receive a penis, she is instructed to put on colored underwear. Some mikvahs even sell black-colored period pads for discharge, so that you can't see if you actually start to spot again. Because once you've submitted to the misogynistic rules of behavior, and completed the process, it doesn't matter what actually happens to your body.
Speaking of what is real vs. not real, there is a whole category of false information that is given to women - again, self-contradictory. First of all, women are told in kallah class that there isn't a health reason for mikvah, that it is a commandment from God, such a "beautiful" commandment, and one of few that they are "in control of".
And then, because even these teachers know that they had better give some more reasons to comply, women are told that having intercourse during their period will, among other things: (1) cause cervical cancer, (2) cause birth defects to any children born, including genetic defects, (3) cause emotional problems in themselves and in any resulting children, (4) cause a bad marriage without love, (5) cause their husbands to find them disgusting, (6) lead to miscarriage, (7) lead to infertility (which is ironic, because all the refraining from intercourse in and of itself can lead to infertility - which is interesting and depressing, because in the olden days, prior to adding in all of those forbidden "clean days," mikvah observance may have made it more likely for babies to be conceived by newly-reunited Jewish couples).
For many generations, traditional Jewish women had very little choice about attending the mikvah in the context of a marital sex life. Nowadays, sensing the predictable loss of women who do not have to submit to theocracy, and who take a shower when they damned well please, Orthodox Judaism has developed a whole battery of apologetics to add flattery and even luxury to try to convince us to practice what they deem to be appropriate mikvah attendance.
Some mikvaot try to sell their "spa-like" experience, using fancy tiles and clean floors to cover up the fact that they're treating women like dirty objects. Some include instructions on breast-self-examination or domestic-abuse-hotlines as part of a phony effort to be about "women's health". Some advertise the trip to the mikvah as "Mommy's time away" or as a relaxing activity.
There is now also an attempt to recapture the mikvah for less offensive purposes - to use it as a mark of transition for women and girls, or indeed for anyone at all. Locally, the Mayyim Hayyim mikvah has opened in the Boston area for this purpose. Although I consider the use of mikvah for general transition to be unsophisticated, I definitely think that Mayyim Hayyim needs to exist to provide a mikvah option for people who might still like to use a mikvah within their visions of Jewish practice, while being free from some of the nosy questioning and bossiness that characterize Orthodox mikvaot.
A friend of mine once said, "you can tell that mikvah is very pro-women because a community has to build a mikvah even before buying a sefer Torah! That means that women are valued above everything else." It seems so clear to me what is wrong with this - it's not that women are being valued, but that the control of women's bodies is valued. That is absolutely wrong to me, and not the kind of Judaism that I can follow.