Monday, May 20, 2013

Marital Status Shouldn't Matter at the Mikvah

Last year, I attended Genesis, a summer program for Jewish high school students at Brandeis University. It was truly the most amazing experience of my life, and I literally had the best time there. During the summer, participants had the chance to go to Mayyim Hayyim, a community mikvahMikvaot are ritual baths, typically used by married women who must immerse after they menstruate in order to resume intimacy with their husbands. Mayyim Hayyim is a beautiful, spa-like mikvah that is open to everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, religious denomination, marital status, or any other identifier. I decided to take the opportunity and go see the legendary mikvah. Although it’s unusual for single women to immerse in the mikvah, while at Mayyim Hayyim, I did so anyway.

When I tell people I immersed, they’re often pretty confused. They usually think I just went to look at the mikvah, but when I clarify that I actually dipped in the waters, the reaction I get is almost always a look of confusion, followed by a nervous giggle, and then a “but WHY?” To be honest, I’m not sure why I wanted to. I have no plans to be intimate with anyone who I’m not married to, and certainly wasn’t expecting to have any opportunities when I did immerse. I wasn’t trying to make any sort of statement, since I don’t believe in using Jewish ritual to make a statement. I just did because I could, to see what it feels like and if it has any impact on my connection to God.

Although I don’t see the big deal about immersing as a single woman, unmarried women going to the mikvah has been a point of contention among the Jewish communities of both America and Israel. Since halakha (Jewish law) prohibits pre-marital sex, most Orthodox authorities are reluctant to allow single women to immerse in the mikvah, since the assumption is that they will then go on to engage in forbidden activities. In Israel, where mikvaot are run by the government’s Ministry of Religion, there has been a lot of controversy over whether or not single women may go to the mikvah, as the implication is that they will then be breaking halakha. As recently as last year, the Israeli government mandated that mikvah attendants must ask women who to come to immerse why they are doing so, and turn away unmarried women.

To combat this injustice, the Center for Women’s Justice and Kolech, two religious feminist organizations in Israel, filed a Supreme Court case against the Minister of Religion to give women who go to the mikvah privacy. After all, a woman (single or married) who goes to the mikvah is not necessarily going to have sex, and even if she does, it’s not really anybody’s business but hers and her partner’s. Happily, the government declared that women’s marital status and reasons for going to mikvah should not be questioned by mikvah attendants. How well this will be enforced can only be determined as time goes on, but I certainly hope that it will be. No woman should be interrogated about why she is immersing in the mikvah. She shouldn't be interrogated about her motives for doing anything else either, for that matter. 


  1. Rambam says that it is not allowed. A decree from the sages dating to the times of the Talmud. this means that it is no different then riding a animal on Sabbath, treating chicken like meat etc.

    1. Other poskim allow it, or don't specifically say it's prohibited, just not encouraged. It's a much more nuanced issue than, for example, treating chicken as meat, since as far as I know the vast rov of poskim, if not all of them, agree on that.