Sex & Love

The Mikvah as Foreplay

I was raised in a small town in Connecticut and while I was surrounded by many Jews, I didn’t know any Orthodox Jews. I learned how they live in dribs and drabs, with a bunch of rumors thrown in. Like … Read More

By / July 23, 2009

I was raised in a small town in Connecticut and while I was surrounded by many Jews, I didn’t know any Orthodox Jews. I learned how they live in dribs and drabs, with a bunch of rumors thrown in. Like the one about Orthodox men and women having intercourse through a hole in a bed sheet. I was horrified. Of course the laws of Judaism are in favor of good, healthy sex between husbands and wives, so, barring some weird linen fetish, forcing a sheet into the picture would be pretty counter to the cause.

I remember in my twenties hearing that Orthodox men and women could only "do it" at certain times of the month. I did a little research and found that Talmudic law says separation should be maintained between a man and wife for twelve days per month (five of those days being her period if she’s an Ashkenazi Jews, four if she is a Sephardic Jew). Then she immerses herself in the mikvah, a bath designed for ritual immersion, on the evening of the final day. At that point, the couple can go to town. I was bothered by the idea of a woman being considered "impure" (in a state known as niddah) during those twelve days, and having so much time spelled out for her when she couldn’t have sex. How sad, how patriarchal.

Now at age 40, married with a four-year-old daughter, I see things differently. I know it sometimes feels like a herculean effort to get sex on the calendar without a deliberate plan and focus. Not because I am no longer interested in it or because my attraction to my husband has waned. I, like millions of other married couples, am just bone tired at the end of the long day that involves working, day care pick-up, making family dinner, spending quality time with our daughter and getting her to bed. My husband and I often want to just sit on the couch holding hands and watching Lost until we climb into bed and pass out. The idea of physically maneuvering our bodies into intriguing configurations can seem daunting.

So I get how Orthodox women might enjoy the rule of having no sex for patches of time each month. I also understand that there is nothing that makes us crave sex more than not being able to have it. This followed by a quiet night of preparation where one escapes into a soothing pool of water without ringing phones and crying kids sounds positively sensual.

In Rachel’s Daughers: Newly Orthodox Jewish Women, the author Debra Renee Kaufman interviewed ba’alot teshuva, women who gave up their secular lives and turned to Orthodox Judaism, asking them about family, feminism and gender. When it came to talking about the enforced separation and mikvah, here were some of the responses:

"Over the years it is building a cycle for me; it’s a rhythm that is related to me and my body alone."

"It is even more than the anticipation of making love but the whole secret sharing of it with other women, the friend I may meet at the mikvah or the friend who might take care of the baby when I go, that make it all more, I don’t know, sort of sexy."

"Most men don’t know how to talk things out but since approximately one-half of my year is spent in niddah, I found that were are forced to talk about things more and that he has learned to show his love in ways more important than physical contact."

Makes sense to me: Increased communication, adding in an exotic ritual, finding ways to build intimacy beyond physical sex, and tossing in an element of taboo are just plain hot. And yes, I do realize that for these women and their husbands it is also the meaningfulness of in following the traditions of Jewish law and feeling connected to their ancestors and religion. That’s just not the angle I happen to connect with.

I think too about what happens when a woman just isn’t in the mood on mikvah night and the pressure is on. (It should be noted that women are not legally bound to have sex on this night or any other.) The women of Mayim Rabin-a website in which women comment on laws of purity in a blog format-address this issue. They suggest talking to your husband in advance about not wanting sex if possible (as in before the 12th night, when he may be "sexually frustrated.") They also suggest "working out a [sexual] compromise so you can both enjoy the night."

I guess all of us are left to figure out how to make sure there is regular physical intimacy going on even when we’re tired, played-out and feeling entirely unsexy. It is hard to switch into "lustful" after cleaning spaghetti sauce from the counter and explaining to a child that there are not frogs under her bed. Switching gears requires finding quiet space, mentally and physically. For this I have turned to my own form of the mikvah, easing myself into a hot bubble bath surrounded by candles. It’s a good start. Maybe there’s something to be said also for not feeling guilty on the nights when we don’t have sex and reserving more time to thinking about it on the nights before we do.



This piece appears courtesy of Jewcy’s partnership with 614, magazine of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.