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 Judaism, the sexual union contains the highest potential for spirituality. It is one of the greatest means through which a married couple can express holiness. Like any other means, however, its richness depends completely on the expression the individuals involved. At its highest – in a truly Jewish marriage – the sexual union brings holiness into the world, by bonding husband and wife spiritually, physically and emotionally. According to Jewish thought, a husband and wife were originally one soul before birth, split into two halves when the older of the two was conceived. By reuniting in marriage, their bond represents the reunion of a single entity, of one soul.
In describing marriage, 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) This oneness, the central goal of Jewish marriage is not easy to achieve. By marriageable age, each individual has a unique history, experience, likes and dislikes. Fortunately, marriage itself provides the tools for reconciling these divergent experiences.
Sexual intimacy is perhaps one of the most powerful routes towards intimacy in marriage. All of the wonderful feelings in a marriage culminate in this aspect of the relationship between husband and wife. Since G-d gave intimacy such extraordinary power, He also gave us a medium through which to achieve it. This medium is called “mikvah.” Mikvah and its accompanying practices of “family purity” were once well known and as universally practiced in Jewish homes as lighting candles for the Sabbath.
Recognition of alternative lifestyles has proceeded so far that today marriage between a Jewish man and woman – once the goal of all Jews – has become just one of many lifestyle options. In former times, Jewish marriages were to be envied. Jewish families not only knew about mikvah and family purity, they risked their lives to practice them. To this day, family purity is enjoyed by 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, that is untouched by human hands. Historically, mikvah has played a critical role in Jewish life, so much so that the rabbis of the Talmud ruled that a community without mikvah and synagogue must first build a mikvah.
A mikvah is used by both Jewish men and women, who immerse in it before certain holy acts. Though a mikvah looks like a bath, it is a spiritual tool without any connection to hygiene. In fact, a user must be perfectly physically clean prior to immersion. The Torah mentions mikvah most prominently in connection with the High Priest, the “Kohen Gadol,” who immersed in its waters five times during Yom Kippur, throughout the period when the Temple stood in Jerusalem.
Part 2 of this class will include a more in depth description of family purity and mikvah. The class will also cover the benefits of these practices and their use in creating the right approach to sexuality.
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 1-800-878-5000.
Responses to this and any other “Women in Judaism” classes are welcome. Responses may be reprinted on the bulletin board at the Jewish Renaissance Center website (http://www.JewishRenaissance.org).
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 1999 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Project Genesis, Inc.