Religion & Beliefs
Does a Mikvah Dunk Make Pre-Marital Sex Kosher?
On January 24th, Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Chief Ashkenazi rabbi in Israel, issued a prohibition against unmarried women immersing themselves in mikvahs. Rabbi Metzger's decree was in response to the recent condoning of premarital sex by various other rabbis and … Read More
On January 24th, Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Chief Ashkenazi rabbi in Israel, issued a prohibition against unmarried women immersing themselves in mikvahs. Rabbi Metzger's decree was in response to the recent condoning of premarital sex by various other rabbis and halachic authorities, who believe that the act is halachically tolerable on the condition that women immerse themselves in the mikvah. Metzger, on the other hand, doesn’t want there to be any way for people to circumvent a rabbinic restriction against premarital sex. Among other commands, he instructed mikvah attendants—commonly known as mikvah ladies—to prevent single women from taking the ritual bath. Rabbi Metzger’s prohibition came at a coincidental time for me: Just a few days earlier, I had used the mikvah for the first time—as an unmarried woman. I grew up in a religious community where the idea of going to the mikvah in order to make premarital sex kosher was absolutely taboo. Barring conversion, a girl would first step into the mikvah on her wedding day, and from then on she’d dunk one week after every period. Premarital sex was out of the question, so there was never any discussion about whether going to the mikvah would make it less problematic. I figured I’d see the inside of a mikvah just before I saw the underside of a chuppa, and for a long time that arrangement seemed fine to me. Then I met Ben. He was sweet, smart, funny, and attractive, and we had a kind of chemistry that I wouldn’t have believed existed if I hadn’t experienced it myself. When we first slept together I didn’t worry or wonder about the halachic implications. Having sex with him felt like surfacing after being under water for too long. Though our life paths diverged, and a move I made left little hope for a committed relationship, we've done our best to see each other as often as possible. In the three years since meeting we've had sporadic trysts whenever we could manage to be in the same country at the same time. Then, this past December, everything changed: Ben announced that he was moving to New York for work. Suddenly we were venturing into the land of real relationships. He began talking about introducing me to his parents and spending the holidays with my family, and I found myself feeling simultaneously excited and terrified. As we began to plan our first weekend together as residents of the same country, I couldn’t stop thinking about going to the mikvah. I had recently met a number of girls who went despite the fact that they weren’t married, and I’d done some research about the rules against premarital sex. As far as I could tell, going to the mikvah nullified the main halachic problem with sex between Ben and me. That said, I really didn't want to go. It’s not that I find the mikvah to be gross, insulting, or misogynistic. Refraining from sex while I have my period makes perfect sense to me, and I like that the mikvah schedule enforces an ebb and flow to the sexual aspect of a relationship. It seems like a sensible way of keeping things exciting in the bedroom—I just couldn’t see past a number of logistical nightmares. What if, for example, the mikvah lady asked about my husband? What if I ran into someone I knew at the mikvah, and they outed me as a single girl? Finally, the idea of standing naked in front of some Orthodox woman was horrifying. Though I’ve always been fairly religious, I don’t exactly look the part, what with pink highlights in my hair, black nail polish, and a pierced nipple. I couldn’t imagine how a mikvah lady would respond to my body, and found myself worrying obsessively that I would be called fat.
Despite my hesitation, my excuses seemed more and more feeble as the weekend approached. I could go to a mikvah in a different neighborhood so that I wouldn’t be recognized, and I would just have to fib to the mikvah lady if the topic of husbands came up. A mikvah lady’s only real job was to make sure that my hair was completely submerged when I dunked. My marital status, I told myself, was none of her business. Besides, not going to the mikvah after obsessing about it all week would just be lame. The night before Ben and I had plans to meet up, I found myself standing outside the West Side Mikvah. I was buzzed in and shown to a nice bathroom, where I washed my hair, cleaned inside my bellybutton, and tried to remove every spec of the mascara I’d put on that morning. The bathroom had a laminated list of instructions that reminded me to take off all of my jewelry and nail polish, so I spent twenty minutes attacking my recent manicure and pedicure with nail polish remover wipes, and then gingerly removed my nipple ring. The mikvah provided a nice Frette robe, and I gave myself a once over in the floor-to-ceiling mirror before pressing the button on the wall to summon the mikvah lady. When she knocked on the door, I steeled myself for what I imagined would be an imposing old lady in a big hat. To my surprise, I was greeted by a girl who couldn’t have been much older than me, wearing a casual long dress, and no hat or wig. She walked me down the hallway to the mikvah itself, and I stammered that I was a ba’al teshuva, new to religious life, and so it was my first time at the mikvah and I might need instructions. She smiled at me and touched a piece of pink hair.
“Does it come off?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
I expected her expression to be judgmental or rude, but when I told her that it didn’t, she nodded and moved on without another comment. She asked to see my hands and I held them out, expecting quick approval because I had spent so much time trying to get rid of the black nail polish. Instead, she shook her head and produced a handful of Q-tips, which she dipped in acetone and used to get in the crevices of my nails. I stood there for almost ten more minutes while she worked on my hands, feeling panic creep into my chest. She was sweet, and we chatted politely, but I began to shake, suddenly wondering if this was really the right thing to do. I was sure she was going to call me out on my non-marital status at any second. “Next time,” the mikvah lady said gently, “if you take your nail polish off a few days before mikvah day this won’t be so hard.”
When she said ‘mikvah day’ she smiled to herself, and I stole a glance at her own fingernails—it looked like she had just removed some red polish. I guessed mikvah day was approaching for her, too, and felt my nerves peak and then fall. My toenails weren’t satisfactory either, but after another five minutes of intensive Q-tip work my feet and hands were approved. I held my breath while the mikvah lady checked to make sure there were no hairs on my back, and then I stepped down into the water, momentarily shocked by how warm it was. I had studied up on exactly what the procedures were, but standing naked in the water my mind went blank, and I had to ask for directions. The mikvah lady instructed me to stand just below her and dunk once, making sure that the water touched my entire body.
As I surfaced she sang out, “Ka-sher!”
I said the blessing, and then dunked twice more.
“Ka-sher!” she called, and then again: “Ka-sher!”
She held the robe up in front of her so that she couldn’t see me while I came out of the mikvah, and as I tied the belt around my waist she said, “Mazel tov! May you have much hatzlachah. You and your husband and your family!”
I cringed at the mention of my husband, but said "thank you" and offered a weak smile in response. She led me back to the bathroom where I’d left my clothes and wished me well again. When I was finally alone I got dressed quickly and then exited through the lobby, where a woman took my twenty-dollar fee and said, “You know, we have hair dryers you can use if you want.” I shook my head and hurried out. On the subway home I couldn’t stop thinking about the way the mikvah lady said ‘mikvah day,’ and about the soft smiles I had exchanged nervously with women in the waiting room. I didn’t feel spiritually cleansed or particularly close to God, but I did feel a strange connection to the other women in the mikvah. There was something quiet and nice about women coming together to help each other prepare for intimacy, even when it involved Q-tips and nail polish remover and cleaning my belly button. During my weekend with Ben I kept thinking back to the way I had been so closely examined. Though it had made me uncomfortable and anxious, it also seemed appropriate to make myself completely vulnerable—literally naked—in front of God in preparation for being vulnerable and naked with my boyfriend. The simple fact is that Ben and I would have had sex that weekend whether or not I went to the mikvah. According to halacha, the punishment should have been karet: being cut off from the community, and probably premature death. Ben and I had previously transgressed the rule against premarital sex, so maybe we were already screwed (no pun intended) but by going to the mikvah I was changing our pattern. Instead of ignoring halacha altogether, I was doing my best to reconcile it with my actions. I recognize that it isn’t the ideal scenario, but I bet it’s a pretty common one, and I’m not sure what would have been gained—by anyone—if the mikvah lady had refused to let me in, or if I hadn’t gone at all. Most people don’t wait for permission to have sex. If they want to do it badly enough it happens, regardless of religious law, societal expectations, or even the input of the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel. No one in the religious world is encouraging couples to have premarital sex outright, or promising that a dunk in the mikvah will automatically purify a relationship, but a few rabbis and scholars have pointed out that if a woman goes to the mikvah, the couple’s sex life is no longer illegal by Jewish law. If anything, the recent publicity and discussion around this issue may have inspired some women to take on a new mitzvah, and a handful of relationships may well have become less halachically problematic. Rabbi Metzger's concerns are valid, but his reaction is naive. A prohibition might stop some women from going to the mikvah, but it won’t stop couples from engaging in premarital sex.