Recently, I was at a slam-poetry night where amateurs and professionals alike got up to perform their spoken word. I thought performances would be about 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, not just by the attack on this verse which I consider to be part of holy scripture. No, I was offended on behalf of my mother.
You see, I was raised in a home that had a Jewish communal bath-house, a mikvah, adjacent to it. The mikvah is where women immerse in a ritual bath after their menstruation cycle is completed (Leviticus 15:24-27). This mikvah was a gorgeous redwood cottage housing an artwork-adorned lounge and a spa-like 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 these women. As I took in the words of the poet that night, I thought to myself, "Could it be that my mother really believed these women were ‘dirty’ and in need of hygienic decontamination?"
My subsequent research revealed that meticulous physical cleanliness was actually a prerequisite for using a mikvah in the first place (Talmud, Baba Kama 82A). Furthermore, the mikvah ritual was also a key part of the Temple service performed by none other than the High Priest himself on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar (Leviticus 16:24). Finally, the importance of having a mikvah ranks even higher in Jewish law than that of having a synagogue (Megilla 27a, Meshiv Davar 2:45).
Most poignantly, it turns out that original Hebrew wording of the verse in question was subtly but distinctively mistranslated. The Hebrew word used in this verse is not the word "meluchlach – unclean," but the word "tamei” which means “impure." This is the same wording used in reference to the High Priest's need to go to the mikvah (Leviticus 21:4). This lack of purity has no unique connection with women, nor does it have anything to do with being physically dirty. Rather, the "tahara-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 with "purity" because the Torah is obsessed with "life" itself. Whether it's valuing life over religious adherence (Yoma 84b), preserving fruit trees that sustain life (Deuteronomy 20:19), or even toasting "L'chaim - to life" at Jewish events, the spirituality of the Torah is anchored with "Keep my statutes…and live by them" (Leviticus 18:5). In other words, it is not the journey to a promised heaven or hell that is the purpose of our souls. It is the everyday journey through this lifetime that our souls were created for. Therefore, the Torah doesn't even have one mention of a heaven or hell throughout the entire Five Books of Moses. However, it does mention the countless stories of women and men pursuing spiritual enlightenment within the physical constraints of reality.
The High Priest and the menstruating woman go to the mikvah when encountering "death" and embracing new "life."
For 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 (Leviticus 21:1) or before praying that the past sins of his people be forgiven and a fresh spiritual life be bestowed upon them (Leviticus 16:24).
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 even the highest of priests must model -- that we can honor the death of lost opportunities but treasure the life that our new choices create.
Far from being "dirty," the woman's cycle is of the highest purity, for it reminds us that it is the cycles, changes, and opportunities of this physical life that defines our greatest spirituality. In other words, the spiritual rebirth of going to the mikvah is one of refocusing on life and fresh beginnings.
This may be why the night of going to the mikvah is a night of intimacy for a husband and wife and is considered a new "wedding night" (Talmud Niddah 31b). This may be why many people use the mikvah in preparation for a religious holiday or event (Talmud Yevamos 46a). This may also be why the mikvah water must contain pure rain water from the skies (Sifra on Leviticus 11:36), to remind us that the message of the mikvah is to bring heaven down to earth.
So, if you're that poet from the bar and you're reading this right now, I'd like you to know that the Bible does not consider women to be "dirty." That my mother would tell you that a woman's cycle symbolizes a deep truth – that the highest purity is when we are fully honoring life.