Ritual bath represents womens purity, not uncleanliness

I was at a recent poetry-slam night where participants got up to perform their spoken word pieces. I thought they would consist of whimsical rhymes and cryptic novelties.

But then it happened.

One performer started lambasting believers of the Bible for considering women to be “dirty” during their menstruation, quoting Leviticus 15:19 where it states, “When a woman has her regular flow of blood … anyone who touches her will be unclean.”

I was offended, but not just by the attack on this verse I consider to be part of holy Scripture. No, I was offended on behalf of my mother.

I was raised in a home that had a Jewish communal bathhouse, a mikvah, adjacent to it. The mikvah is where women immerse in a ritual bath after their menstruation cycle is completed. This mikvah was a gorgeous redwood cottage housing an artwork-adorned lounge and a spalike pool lined with sparkling blue tiles. My mother spent 30 years volunteering to run this mikvah, and I never once got the impression that these women were coming there because they were “unclean” or “dirty.” My mother dedicated her life to doing whatever she could to make the mikvah experience one of joy and meaning for them.

As I took in the words of the poet that night, I thought, “Could it be that my mother really believed these women were ‘dirty’ and in need of hygienic decontamination?”

Meticulous physical cleanliness is actually  a prerequisite for using a mikvah in the first place. Furthermore, the ritual was a key part of the Temple service performed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Finally, the importance of having a mikvah ranks even higher in Jewish law than having a synagogue.

Most poignantly, it turns out that the original Hebrew wording of the verse in question was subtly but distinctively mistranslated. The word used is not “meluchlach,” unclean, but “tamei,” which means impure. This is the same wording used in regard to the High Priest’s need to go to the mikvah. The tahara or purity referenced in both places indicates a spiritual state that both the High Priest and the menstruating woman experience.

So what is the mikvah really about? Going to the mikvah is not about getting clean. It’s about getting alive.

We see the Torah obsessing over “purity” because the Torah is obsessed with life itself, whether it’s valuing life over religious adherence, preserving fruit trees that sustain life or even toasting “L’chaim — to life” at Jewish events.

It is not the journey to a promised heaven or hell that is the purpose of our souls, but the everyday journey through this lifetime. It is not in death that we find the highest form of spiritual fulfillment. It is in the everyday struggle to do the right thing that you and I become “created in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). Thus, the ultimate spiritual heights will be achieved when “He will abolish death forever” (Isaiah 25:8).

Both the High Priest and the menstruating woman represent this message, as both go to the mikvah when encountering “death” and embracing new “life.” The High Priest must go to the mikvah after coming in contact with death or before praying that the past sins of his people be forgiven and a fresh spiritual life be bestowed upon them.

The menstruating woman honors the egg that has been shed, which will never house a human soul, as she embraces a fresh potential for life that she can now bestow unto the world. This is the magic of the woman, “mother of all life” (Genesis 3:20), as her monthly cycle represents a lesson — that we can honor the death of lost opportunities but treasure the life that our new choices create.

The spiritual rebirth of going to the mikvah is one of refocusing on life and fresh beginnings. Far from being “dirty,” a woman’s cycle is of the highest purity.

So, if you’re that poet from the bar, I’d like you to know that the Bible does not consider women to be “dirty;” that my mother would tell you a woman’s cycle symbolizes a deep truth regarding honoring life; and that the greatest holiness is not found in detachment from this world but is inherent in the engagement of our everyday lives.

Or, as some might put it, the highest spirituality is not when we are getting high and mighty but when we are getting down and dirty.

Rabbi Levi Welton is a writer and educator raised in Berkeley. He has served Jewish communities in San Francisco, Sydney and Montreal and currently works with youth and young adults in New York. He can be reached at leviwelton@gmail.com.