Listen, it wasn’t all about my mikveh night, but it didn’t help that I had to go to the mikveh just then. I quarreled with my husband, I crumbled under the stress of competing life demands, and I left the house in tears.
That night, I wanted to sulk and be alone with my miserable mood. I didn’t want to immerse in the myriad of physical details for spiritual purification. I definitely didn’t want to be naked in front of a stranger. I didn’t even want to come home afterwards to apologize and to forgive. But I didn’t want to miss the chance to start over, so I walked to the mikveh.
“I’ll go in, but I won’t say the bracha,” I told myself. But I did say it, under my breath so God could hear, batting in irritation at the unwanted washcloth the balanit dropped on my head to cover me in piety.
“I won’t pray while I’m in the water,” I said to myself. “I don’t feel like praying right now.” But I did, emerging after the second immersion and whispering, “Please help me.”
I dipped a third time, dressed quickly and headed home to sort out my life.
“I’m a fraud,” I said as I walked along, and I let that thought linger.
I am something of a mikveh obsessive. I work as a kallah teacher, teaching the laws of niddah, and the tools of sacred sexuality to women on the cusp of marriage. Married women consult me about their intimate relationships. For fun, I research and write about the interplay of Torah and sexuality.
This is my area of passion, my little corner of enthusiasm in the world. So when it comes to my own mikveh observance, I have a hard time allowing myself mixed feelings or misgivings. I feel as though I must be a cheerleader for this lifestyle, even within my own mind. When I feel resentful or rebellious, I am struck with a deep terror that I am an imposter, that I am inauthentic and inconsistent.
You know, like a human being.
As hard as I find it to live with my own vulnerability, I know it helps me as a kallah teacher. This work grants me the privilege of access to people’s private lives, and it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Keeping halakha can be difficult. I must be able to prepare new brides for that reality, and to listen and respond with empathy when my students share their struggles and concerns. I can only do that when I accept that I struggle as well.
Too often, mikveh observance is presented with a serene, inspired cheerfulness that stifles doubt and offers false promises. Through this lens, mikveh is a monthly spa ritual of renewal and inspiration. Cycles of separation and reunion nurture all aspects of a couple’s relationship and keep passion alive. The monthly retreat from physical contact gives a woman a chance to connect with her own spirituality and individuality.
All of that is true, sometimes. Kallah teachers can hardly be faulted for wanting to inspire and to emphasize the positive. But taharat hamishpacha is a spiritual discipline. Just like the other Divine commandments, sometimes it is enjoyable, and sometimes it is frustrating. Sometimes it enhances, and sometimes it detracts. It bestows and it blocks, constrains and liberates.
Mikveh is not a guarantee of happiness, but a framework that enables transcendence. That potential is brought to life over the long journey of a marriage through hard work and Heavenly assistance. There is no simple reward for religious diligence.
Over the course of my own marriage, I have experienced that transcendence over and over. That is what motivates me to guide others in the path of sanctifying intimacy. Ultimately, the low points are part of that, too. The monthly cycle may bring both alienation and reunion, and so it is in a religious life. We pull away and draw close again, perhaps closer than before, seeking to grow stronger and more secure in the ways we belong to each other.
Chaya Houpt is a writer and kallah teacher who lives in Jerusalem.