When we last spoke, I told you about launching a feminist revolt at my Orthodox Jewish girls’ school. I hope to get back to that, eventually. But let’s fast forward about 30 years. Now I’m working at a place that’s doing its own radical feminist work, right in the heart of the Jewish community.
I work in a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath. You may have heard the disturbing story of Barry Freundel, a DC rabbi who was arrested last week on charges of using a hidden camera to spy on nude women in the mikveh of Kesher Israel, the synagogue which he ran. This has been an epic scandal in the Orthodox Jewish world, as Freundel was a revered scholar and leader in the rabbinic establishment. Political heavyweights like Senator Joe Lieberman and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew attend Kesher Israel. Freundel has been suspended without pay from Kesher Israel, barred from entering both the synagogue and the mikveh.
So what even is a mikveh and what exactly was Freundel doing, and why should we feminists care? Allow me to explain.
Mikvehs were originally used for purification from contact with the dead or impure according to halacha (Jewish law), before one could enter the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, mikvehs are primarily used by three populations:
- People converting to Judaism, for whom immersion is often the final step in the process, the official Jew-ification, if you will.
- Hasidic men in certain sects, who immerse en before the Sabbath and holidays, establishing the mikveh as kind of an old-world mens’ club over time, not unlike a bathhouse or shvitz.
- Religious married women immersing to end their niddah, menstrual (plus seven “clean” days) time and reunite sexually with their partners. A woman, single or married, who has menstruated without subsequently immersing in a mikveh carries the default status of being “in niddah” and is sexually prohibited from men.
Stay with me here. I promise we’ll end up in a good place.
Along with refraining from work on the Sabbath and keeping kosher, adhering to the niddah rules of sexual separation and mikveh are the primary guideposts of Orthodox Jewish family life. In most Orthodox communities, mikvehs, while staffed by women during nightly women-only hours, are tightly-controlled by the largely male-led establishment. After all, whoever controls the mikveh controls who gets to be Jewish as well as women’s bodies and sexuality. It’s a very charged thing, to say the least.
Most Orthodox mikvehs completely prohibit any unmarried women from immersing (except a bride immediately before her wedding day), as it’s feared that this will lead to sexual promiscuity (cuz if she’s not in niddah, she’s sexually available and all bets are off! Yes, because a woman who would be religiously fastidious enough to immerse before sex is obviously on her way to a Satanic orgy. But I digress). If you’re outside of the heteronormative paradigm or gender binary, forget it.
You can imagine that the niddah practice is fairly fraught for Orthodox Jewish feminists (Yes, we exist. We are legion). While temporarily refraining from sex, in my experience, creates a nice absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder balance in mine and my husband’s sex life, the misogyny at the core of the ritual is hard to ignore. On an experiential level, though, going to the mikveh itself, creating that spiritual space before reuniting with one’s partner sexually, can be a very beautiful thing.
Everyone who adheres to the practice of mikveh connects with it in her own way, but at its core it’s a deeply intimate experience. You have to be completely clean and completely naked – no jewelry, contacts, etc. In most cases, a mikveh attendant is there to make sure you’ve immersed fully – i.e. gotten your whole head and body below the surface of the water. Ideally, they hold up a towel, robe, or sheet above their eyes, and only bring it down after they’ve heard you dunk, so they can tell you if your immersion was “kosher.” Unfortunately, many women, including myself, have had bad experiences with mikveh attendants. One lady yelled at my naked, vulnerable self for not cleaning well enough under my nails. Another brought in a whole cart of makeup removal implements and preceded to – unasked – grab a wipe and scrub my face clean enough for her standards. This kind of thing makes one feel disempowered and resentful, to say the least.
I’m happy to say that none of this sort of thing occurs at the mikveh where I work, and that’s by design. Mayyim Hayyim Community Mikveh and Educational Center, located in Newton, MA, was founded 11 years ago by Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent. Mayyim Hayyim is a radical feminist place because it takes the ritual of mikveh back from the male rabbinic establishment and gives it to anyone who wants to use it, for conversion and niddah or for any reason at all, with or without a trained volunteer mikveh guide. We are open to all Jewish people, regardless of gender, marital status, sexual orientation, physical abilities (we have a chairlift to make it fully accessible), etc. Women, myself included, find a new way to connect with the niddah practice in a totally judgment-free, woman-centered space where their experience is their own. People of all genders immerse to deepen their spirituality. New Jews of all denominations convert in an atmosphere of joy and celebration. Here’s a quick glimpse. Before Mayyim Hayyim, there was hardly anywhere in the world where an openly genderqueer or trans person, an LGBT couple, or even a bat/bar mitzvah girl or boy could immerse. Now it’s a normal, daily occurrence, here and at a growing number of community mikvehs around the globe. We’ve unlocked this ritual and given it back to the people.
It wasn’t enough for Rabbi Freundel to look at porn for his sexual gratification. No – he preyed on women in this moment that encompasses vulnerability and spiritual intimacy. He set up hidden cameras in the mikveh preparation room, and spied on them while they were getting ready to immerse. They were connecting with God through their own bodies, and he filmed them doing it and used it for his own sexual gratification. Can you imagine if that was you, having willingly made yourself naked and vulnerable, going through your own spiritual or therapeutic process, and finding out that someone was watching the whole time and getting off on the site of your naked body? And not just anyone – your rabbi. The horror is compounded by the allegations that many of the women he filmed were candidates for conversion under his auspices – he thus abused their trust in him as the spiritual leader shepherding them into Judaism. The violation is unfathomable.
Freundel’s actions have sent off a firestorm in the Jewish community, with numerous calls to change the male-dominated power dynamic in the Orthodox world – this scandal is this dynamic taken to its most egregious conclusion. It has come out that the rabbinic body overseeing Freundel, the Rabbinic Council of America, was told years ago that he crossed inappropriate boundaries with women, and they did nothing. It is questionable whether Freundel’s actions would have come to light at all if the president of Kesher Israel had not been a woman. It is due to her leadership that the synagogue is responding to the scandal with remarkable transparency and sensitivity, publishing the arrest warrant, holding a community forum with police, and continuing to reach out to victims and community members with support.
This is looking to be a watershed moment in the Jewish world, coming at a time when many Orthodox men and women are challenging the patriarchal setup and calling for drastic change. This is certainly going to be the case at next month’s conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Stay tuned.
DeDe works at Mayyim Hayyim and writes. She lives in Sharon, MA with her husband and two sons.