The Western world, the culture we live in, has considerable difficulty with the concept of sexual intimacy. One indication is the culture’s obsession with the subject. On highway billboards, in magazine ads, in best selling novels, in almost every form from high art to low language, sexual innuendo dominates.
In Jewish life, sexual intimacy is also a big issue, but in perhaps a more resolved sense than in contemporary society. Jewish intimacy contains the highest potential for spirituality, as a means through which a married couple expresses their holiness. At its highest the sexual union in a Jewish marriage brings holiness beyond the household, into the world at large. This happens through the spiritual, emotional and physical bond of husband and wife.
According to Jewish thought, a husband and wife are originally one soul before birth, split in half when the first of the two is conceived. Marriage – and more specifically intimacy between husband and wife – represents the reunion of halves as a single entity. In describing the reunion that marital relations represents, the Torah tells us, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
Oneness – the central goal of Jewish marriage – is not easy to achieve. By marriageable age, each individual has a unique history and experience, not to mention distinct likes and dislikes. Fortunately, Jewish marriage itself provides tools for reconciling the divergent backgrounds of husband and wife, without promoting loss of individual identity. One such tool is the practice of family purity, with the mikvah (ritual bath) as its centerpiece. Historically, mikvah has played a critical role in Jewish life, so much so that the rabbis of the Talmud ruled that a community without both mikvah and synagogue must first build a mikvah. While mikvah and family purity were once part and parcel of Jewish life, to this day their practice provides stability and richness for a significant percentage of observant Jews.
The word mikvah means collection. A mikvah is a pool that collects natural water from rain, a river or an underground spring untouched by human hands. Though a mikvah looks something like a small pool or bath, it is truly a spiritual tool, rather than an entity connected to personal hygiene. In fact, a user must be perfectly physically clean prior to immersion.
Jewish men and women alike immerse in the mikveh prior to engaging in certain ritual acts. In the practice of family purity, the woman immerses, following a period of physical separation from her husband that commences with the onset of menstruation. On the eve of the night the couple is to resume relations, the wife enters the waters of the mikvah, where she says a prayer inviting God to sanctify her forthcoming intimacy with her husband. Her immersion marks the start of renewed physical intimacy between husband and wife. This phase of their relationship lasts until the start of her next period.
The significance of mikvah in this monthly change of status in a marriage can be understood by examining the spiritual potential of water, itself. According to the Torah, water filled the world in the first stage of Creation. Genesis 1:2 reads, “…when the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep, and the Divine Presence hovered upon the surface of the waters…”
In connection with the primordial character of water, the waters of a mikveh at their time of collection remain untouched by human hands. (Jewish law mandates they come from rainfall or from an underground source). The waters of mikveh have the potential to renew, refresh and confer a sense of new beginning, reminiscent of the world at its very birth. When a woman visits the mikvah she, in a sense, emerges from the water and starts fresh, unencumbered by past obstacles to her personal growth and vision. After visiting the mikveh she returns home to imbue her marriage, family and relationships with the cohesiveness and harmony that belong to each and every Jewish woman.
Lecture by Mrs. Feige Twerski, adapted from “The Intimate Road: Men and Women in Jewish Relationships,” published 1993. Mrs. Twerski provides insight into the challenges facing the family today, with emphasis on the role of the contemporary Jewish woman. For a listing of her cassette offerings, please call -800-878-5000.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Torah.org.