from Rabbi Tamara Miller
Last night I saw the play “Mikveh” at Theatre J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. I recommend you see it. It inspired me to write this piece.
Soon after I got engaged, I decided to honor the tradition of immersing in the mikveh before my wedding day. I was twenty-one years old.
I signed up for “kallah” (bride) classes at a local orthodox synagogue. This six-week course taught young women about the practice of mikveh in their married lives.
Throughout Jewish history, unmarried women have immersed in the mikveh prior to their weddings. And married women immerse after seven days from the end of each monthly menstrual cycle in preparation for the resumption of family relations in their most fertile days.
Submerging in a pool of water expressly to symbolize a change-of-soul was a deeply spiritual and immensely compelling reason for me to mark this new station in my life from bride to wife.
Even though our home was of orthodox observance, I went to public school. This was not true of the other women in the class. They were all products of the neighborhood girls yeshiva (the Jewish parochial school).
I had been dating since I was thirteen. Many of the women in the class vaguely knew their husbands to be, but I had dated my fiance for two years. They were virgins. I was not.
It never occurred to me that this single fact would interfere with my desire to perform this mitzvah before my wedding night. My mother had questioned my motivation in even signing up for the class, so I couldn’t ask for her counsel.
Perhaps I was naive. Perhaps I was in denial.
I lived an orthodox lifestyle. I never spoke about sex to my girlfriends. I assumed that they, too, were not virgins. As each of them became engaged, and the topic of the mikveh came up, I realized that they were the real virgins. I was a virgin wannabe.
Week after week, the level of my guilt heightened after every lecture about the laws of family purity. Discipline and pure intention was required.
I still remember the small, classic, hard-covered red book entitled “The Hedge of Roses” by Rabbi Norman Lamm. It was an ideal size for carrying in a pocketbook for reference. The message elevated the monthly mikveh visit to an act of spiritual holiness.
I believed in the power of this mitzvah (commandment).
The lectures were practical and based on the law. My fellow classmates giggled with every sexual suggestion. I knew something they didn’t know and felt unworthy to be in the same room with them — or in the same mikveh.
I was not giggling. I was squirming inside. What if they were right to have held on to their “virgin” status? If they were right, then I had been wrong.
I never completed the “kallah” course or the mikveh experience I so longed for. I never consummated my marriage through immersion in the mikveh.
Twenty-two years later, after six years in seminary and a detailed course of biblical study on the laws of family purity, I went with two of my fellow female rabbinic students to an orthodox mikveh on the West Side of Manhattan a few days before our ordination.
The mikveh lady asked nothing from us except the minimum eighteen-dollar charge.
She showed us the accomodations and quickly left to administer to the other monthly visitors to the mikveh.
We became each other’s mikveh ladies. We said the blessings and witnessed each other’s immersions.
The regret of not having immersed as a young bride returned to me.
The mikveh is a status changer.
I am no longer a bride, yet I am ready to walk down the aisle that God has placed before me.
My name begins with Rabbi.
Rabbi Tamara Miller