With this ring / written by Ruchama ben Yosef (translated from Hebrew)

Smooth on the inside

No hatzitzot

No cracks

Smooth on the inside 

No hidden connections

It is one single piece, whole, round

But on the outside

There are scratches.

There are cracks. 

There are bruises.

There are flaws

There is a whole life

Smooth on the inside

It is as simple as can be

No performance 

One that will last

In the face of all the storms.

You are betrothed

to me with this ring

for eternity.

Immersion in the mikvah is one of the special mitzvot for women. It is an important and special mitzvah that affects every woman in a very personal way, but it can also be complicated. This can have to do with the way she sees herself, her body, her sexuality, the meaning of the terms tuma and tahara, cleanliness and “dirt”, and also how she views the renewal of the intimate relationship between herself and her husband.

Not much has been written about the different experiences of women who immerse in the mikvah because it is such an intimate and private experience that prepares the woman to reunite with her husband. Hence, there is even a custom that a woman does not share when she is actually going to the mikvah, but rather that knowledge remains just between her and her husband.

What does going to the mikvah include:

Keeping “clean days” – days in which the woman checks her body to insure that she is indeed pure.
Preparation at home on the day of the immersion.
The actual immersion in the mikvah.
Coming home.

For a woman who has experienced sexual abuse in the past or in the present, this process is even more complex than for other women, who might also struggle with the various layers and concepts that exist around mikvah. Below are specific points that are often an obstacle or extremely difficult for women with a background of sexual abuse:

  1. The terms tuma (impure) and tahara (pure) can be difficult for many women, and especially for those who have been sexually assaulted. They may carry complex feelings of shame, guilt, or uncleanliness. The halachic terms of tuma and tahara can therefore touch a raw nerve and provoke emotional overload.
  2. The halachic requirement to perform internal checks (bedikot), and to check the body for hatzitzot (for anything separating between the women’s body and the mikvah water) can be difficult for those who have survived sexual assault. For these women, the focus on checking their genital area in an intrusive, repetitive manner — something required by an outside force that allows for no personal choice in the matter — is often a trigger for reliving the painful experience of their trauma. Likewise, it can elicit disconnection with their body and brings difficult emotions (sometimes even traumatic symptoms) to the surface.
  3. The immersion itself can recreate trauma for a survivor of sexual assault, particularly the need to stand naked in front of the mikveh attendant, and especially if she meticulously checks over the victim’s body. While it is true that this could be an uncomfortable and invasive experience for any woman, for a survivor, it can be extremely provoking, emotionally disturbing and again, traumatic.
  4. The last stage after the immersion is the moment when a woman arrives home and is reunited with her husband, and there is an expectation that they will have intimate relations that evening. For many women this is an exciting and intimate experience, which can recreate the excitement they felt on their wedding night. However, for survivors of abuse, it is often experienced as difficult, burdensome and oppresive. For some of these women, any type of sexual or intimate relations can raise difficult feelings of rejection, of distance and alienation from their body or from their partner’s body and feelings of revulsion toward the very act of sexual intimacy itself that is intended to take place that night.

In conclusion, we have raised a number of difficulties that may arise for a woman who has been sexually assaulted, when it comes to immersion in the mikvah. There are survivors who will act in all kinds of ways in order to avoid or sabotage the change of status because they find it so difficult.

Of course, the most crucial aspect of examining sexual abuse’s affect on immersion is in recognizing the vitally important need for a couple to sensitively and openly discuss all the issues that can surface during intimate relations. Often the partner who was abused has to do a lot of work on their own to process the assault, specifically in the context of intimate relations. Beyond the individual work, there is a need for couples therapy to process together the emotions that come up for the spouse who was abused, to express what feelings are evoked with different kinds of touch, and also to hear from the spouse who was not abused, as they may be dealing with their own difficult emotions, such as pain, blame, anger, helplessness etc. Lastly, it is important to mention that there are times when consulting with a sensitive, empathetic and flexible Halachic authority (a rabbi, yoetzet, mikveh attendant, etc.) can be very significant in allowing a different approach and perhaps even be helpful for healing.

Finally, I’d like to go back to some of the beautiful words from Ruchama Ben Yosef’s song. The soul is complicated, dynamic and alive, and one of the vessels of its expression is the body. The connection between one’s soul and body is deep and strong, and one needs to take that into account. Our body records and remembers both positive and negative experiences, and therefore, the ability to create a conversation about the mikveh and its meaning for different women, especially those who have gone through and survived sexual abuse, is so important. The moment we can create a space for understanding, sensitivity, and attentive discourse, we can enable more and more women to connect to themselves, their bodies, their spouses, and also to their faith and religiosity.

Lea Shekalim is a psychotherapist and expressive arts therapist (M.A). She works in private practice and at several clinics in Jerusalem.