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A Feminist on Mikvah: An interview with Rivkah Slonim

by Mrs. Rivkah Slonim

  

Library » Life Cycle » Marriage » Family Purity » The Benefits | Subscribe | What is RSS?


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Interviewed by Janice Lochansky

Q: Let's tackle the question of sexism first; do you sincerely feel that there is no sexism in Jewish life?

Slonim: It is never wise to apply terms that have a set meaning and connotation in one society to another system of belief and thought that is radically different. Such is the case with the word sexism. Seen through the lens of Western societal values where the inalienable rights of an individual are sacred, and equal access and opportunity are the means towards that goal, Judaism may well appear to be sexist. In comparison to society at large, where the struggle for power and control -- often between men and women -- looms large, Judaism may seem out of step. But that kind of view ignores the crucial differences between life in general and Jewish life. Jewish life is not about rights, or power, or access. It is, above and beyond all else, covenantal. It is about actualizing the covenant between G-d and each individual and G-d and this world.

The Torah teaches that the ultimate purpose of our lives -- male and female -- is to fill the universe with G-dliness and spirituality. This we do by infusing our every action with sanctity, by using every opportunity to free the G-dly spark inherent in each facet of creation. There is a name for this exercise -- mitzvahs. This is the definition of Jewish life. Unquestionably, women have equal obligations and privilege in bringing G-d's plan for this universe to fruition. Just as clearly they have their own strengths, modes of expression, and areas of concentration.

Are these women equal? The better question is: Who is equal to them?
In theory, an egalitarian society sounds like the ideal antidote to sexism. In real life, however, it is neither tenable, nor remotely satisfying. A body needs each of its different organs. Families are comprised of distinct units. A partnership needs diverse strengths; a viable institution depends on people serving in various capacities. The world needs men and women; blurring that line does no one a favor.

There is sexism in day-to-day living all around us, and Jewish communal life is certainly not untainted. There are sexist individuals, boards, institutions, etc., and we must continue to agitate and exercise until that is no more. But the Torah system of life is not sexist. It offers, nay demands, the same of both men and women -- the fulfillment of the Divine will.

I consider myself a feminist. The basic task of feminism is to expose the lie that women are any less important than men and to fight it on every level. Many women are secretly afraid that in fact that may be the truth. A woman who is certain that her position and function was ordained by G-d, and that it is every bit as important spiritually, is not plagued by these doubts. She recognizes her femininity as a strength, is certain of her worth, and uses her powers to the maximum.

Jewish feminine spirituality is a complex and delicate study. My book, Total Immersion, endeavors to highlight an area of Jewish ritual that has always belonged to women. And it does so in a fashion, that for the first time, offers a deep, intimate probe through the prism of their own experience. Mikvah offers a virtually unparalleled venue for spirituality and self-growth and has spawned many a Jewish heroine. The volume is filled with a montage of incredibly powerful images: the physically challenged woman who immerses despite all odds, the women in Santa Fe who doggedly build a mikvah with their bare hands, the woman in totalitarian Russia who lowered herself into a freezing well, the women in Sweden who interrupt their cruise and brave jagged-edged boulders to immerse in an ocean. Are these women equal? The better question is: Who is equal to them?


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Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Talmud
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Mikvah
A ritual bath where one immerses to become spiritually pure. After her menstrual cycle, a woman must immerse in the Mikvah before resuming marital relations.
Tabernacle
Mobile sanctuary which traveled with the Jews in the desert, containing the Ark with the Tablets, and the sacrificial altars. When the Jews entered Israel, it was erected in the city of Shiloh where it remained for more than 300 years. It was buried when the permanent Holy Temple was erected in Jerusalem.
Temple
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.
Niddah
A menstruating woman. A niddah may not have intimate relations with her husband until she immerses in a ritual pool of water.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.
Family Purity
Laws relating to intimacy between husband and wife. The primary point of Family Purity is the woman's purifying immersion in a ritual bath which allows the couple to resume intimate relations after the woman's menstrual period.