Trauma is subjective and intimate to each person. This discussion will focus on cultivating sensitivity and attunement to trauma suffered by women at the mikvah, in the past, present as well as at the mikvah itself. There is no “antibody” test for trauma, to know by looking at someone, what she has been through, how it has affected her, or how it will in the future and to what degree. That is why mikvah leadership must be trauma-informed and sensitive to whomever walks in the door.
Trauma is a personal physiological and psychological experience. Just as one cannot describe music or color to the deaf or blind, nor can one be sure if one’s experience of color or sound is even the same as one’s neighbors, so too trauma is something that cannot easily be understood by those who have not experienced it. Religious trauma is most unfortunate because that which is transcendent and intimately spiritual has been sullied and contaminated.
Inadvertently, aspects of the mikvah experience can be triggers for persons who have had body trauma such as sexual abuse, medical trauma as well as some who may be ashamed of their body weight or suffering from eating disorders. It is not being naked alone that is difficult, it also can be triggering to “submit” for an inspection for chatzitzahs (barriers between body and the water) and being watched to ascertain proper immersion. In 2014, women the world over were vicariously traumatized after learning that a renowned and esteemed rabbi of a prominent Orthodox synagogue was video recording women at the mikvah. So on top of all the sexual abuse survivors, any woman, since that horrific crime became public, can potentially have a trauma reaction at the time of tevila. Leaving the mikvah in a state of distress places emotional roadblocks to reuniting with their husbands.
click on this link to see a demo of EMDR and Trauma work: Chaya Feuerman EMDR Demo
My heart breaks when I hear stories about the indignities that dedicated, good Jewish women suffer at the mikvah. I write this article to give these women a voice. Women come to the mikvah to fulfill a spiritual obligation that has the potential to be infused with sanctity and connection to oneself and to G-d. The fact that some do not experience it in this way is a desecration of one of the most sacred of women’s mitzvos. What happens emotionally to some women at even the most aesthetically pleasing mikvahs, robs them of their ability to have a spiritual experience. It can be the small micro-aggressions of a gruff or rushed mikvah attendant, the degrading judgemental manner in which an impatient dayan asks a question prior to immersion, or body inspections and quizzing by mikvah attendants.
Women must be physically exposed in the presence of a mikvah attendant in order to ensure that every hair is submerged during immersion. This is a halachik requirement and the role of the mikvah attendant, because that one aspect a woman cannot see for herself. For many women this is difficult and for some, it is a re-traumatization of past body violations every month.
Women want and deserve privacy and autonomy when it comes to their bodies. They also want and deserve privacy to honor their spiritual longings through prayer at this auspicious time. This is a woman’s time for spiritual hygiene. Some women might take advantage of the immersion moments to pause and meditate on this sacred ritual. Communion with G-d in this most intimate experience cannot happen when someone is standing over you, watching you and impatiently waiting for you to get out. And certainly, a woman cannot focus on prayer or connection to the immersion experience and to G-d if she has just been strip searched. She is rather likely dissociating to get through the ordeal only to leave in a troubled state instead of with the mitzvah’s intended tranquility.
What actually happens at many mikvahs goes way beyond the attendant fulfilling her role to watch for stray hairs above the water, or checking the woman’s back which she cannot see herself prior to immersion.
Allow me to pose a scenario. Tefillin is a non-optional commandment for Jewish men. That means it is a serious mitzvah to be performed every day without fail. It involves many detailed halakhic instructions and must be taught in advance to every bar mitzvah boy prior to turning thirteen. Tefillin must be placed and wrapped in specific and exact ways. The arm knot and head straps, if not wrapped and placed properly, renders the obligation of Tefillin unfulfilled. Are there any shuls in any community, that have protocols for men to be grilled about the placement of their tefillin prior to being admitted to shul or allowed to daven? As far as I know, this minhag has yet to be established in even the most stringent halakhically observant shuls. It is understood that each man takes responsibility for his own mitzvah of Tefillin. No one is hired to check on the daveners, and no one is asking intrusive questions. From what I understand, in many shuls if a fellow davener comes over to point out that a person’s shel rosh is placed incorrectly, many times the response is one of hostility. People do not take well to being intruded on during their spiritual meditations.
Why are women being grilled, checked, touched and having flashlights aimed at them? Are women not to be trusted with their own mitzvah? Do women turn into little children as soon as they cross over the mikvah threshold who need to be asked if they brushed and flossed their teeth? Why are women’s bodies being invaded at mikvahs through excessive inspections of areas the women could check themselves? Why are women being second guessed? Why does a woman need to justify herself to a mikvah attendant? Which halakha requires it? Women should be trusted that they have sought their own rabbi’s direction. What status does a mikvah attendant have over a woman using the mikvah other than her role to check for chatzizahs on her back and to attest that she has fully submerged? Why are women instead not asking mikvah attendants if they were REALLY careful to check that all hair was submerged and that they did not get distracted with the phone vibrating in their pockets?
Let us be sensitized and aware of the potential distress and damage wrought by an unattuned mikvah process. Mikvah attendants should ideally possess personality qualities and communication skills that put mikvah users at ease and create an emotionally stress-free environment. Certain forward-thinking mikvahs have attendants who are exceptionally sensitive and seem to have received trauma informed training. But there also are mikvahs where the attendants have an unfriendly and stern-faced attitude reminiscent of a Headmaster at a Catholic boarding school for juvenile delinquents.
Women who come to the mikvah are already feeling emotionally vulnerable. Some of them are desperately trying to get pregnant while others are terrified of getting pregnant. Some will go home to loving husbands and others to harsh or abusive husbands. Some have struggled with months of bleeding and staining prior to getting seven clean days and others might be going to immerse for the first time in a year. Their bodies and private places are literally exposed but they are emotionally unseen. The ways in which women are inspected and touched in many mikvahs are dehumanizing. Some of the words used by women in my practice who have had such experiences are: “strip searched”, “violated”, “interrogated” and “degraded”. Almost all women feel uncomfortable to some degree. Why exacerbate these difficulties with intrusive inspections and excessive scrupulosity?
There seems to be no rabbinic consensus or agreed upon standards of an attendant’s role. In one mikvah, women’s navels are examined and cleaned by an attendant, in another mikvah a laser sharp flashlight is used to search a woman’s finger and toe nails and at others only a perfunctory examination is done. In one mikvah, questions about teeth being brushed and flossed and a long list of other items are asked, but not at others. One question may be asked at one mikvah, another question at another.
As important as the details of halachik immersion are, providing an environment to immerse in peace and holiness instead of humiliation and psychological assault is of equal importance. At the very least, it is incumbent upon rabbinic leadership to consider that women be allowed a few minutes to pray alone in the mikvah without a sense of being rushed to get your “kosher” stamp like a piece of Empire poultry. As well, consideration of women’s body autonomy and the physical intrusions that take place in many mikvahs need to be reviewed.
In a recent discussion with a group of mental health professionals and Kallah teachers regarding these concerns, the following was stated by Lizzie Rubin, RN MS, AASECT from Jerusalem:
It is my hope, and the hopes of the Jewish women who fear and dread the mikvah experience each month that mikvah leadership take note of what women are afraid to say out loud. Because mikva rites and its meanings are close to my heart, I want all precious Jewish women to have the best possible experience. Mikvah’s should consider soliciting an anonymous survey of their clientele. The survey should ask if they feel pressured or rushed, if they feel respected or disrespected. It should ask if there are any aspects of the mikvah experience that feel hurtful or embarrassing and what improvements could be made. Such feedback would surely be illuminating.
The Mikvah User's Bill of Rights - a Guide for Rabbinic and Lay Leadership
Mikvah is an extraordinary mitzvah set aside for women which, if some modifications were made, would provide an opportunity to connect with G-d in the most intimate way. It can be a treasured oasis of quiet, personal time to pray for healing and growth for one's self, family members and special people in our lives. No other mitzvah, including challah and candle lighting - which take place in the presence of family members and others - affords the same opportunity of spiritual connection without distraction.
From this perspective, it is crucial that Jewish communities take the mitzvah of mikvah seriously when it comes to the emotional and spiritual experience for the thousands of women who invest time and attention for mikvah preparation and immersion. As well, in the wake of recent and disturbing abuses that took place in one mikvah of national prominence, it is an opportune time for tikkun and soul searching regarding crucial, but possibly ignored aspects of mikvah observance. Therefore, we urge mikvah Boards as well as supervising Rabbis to reflect upon the following concerns that have been expressed by many mikvah users.
Due to time pressures and short staff, unfortunately and inadvertently, in some mikvahs, users report feeling rushed and that the process of mikvah attendants fulfilling their duties seems to be a burdensome chore for them. It is important to note that the Halacha frowns upon circumstances that would make a woman feel rushed during her mikvah process, (see Shulchan Aruch, Y.D. 198:34, although the reason specified there is somewhat more technical, it still holds true that a woman should not feel rushed.) Such attitudes in the mikvah environment can create a sense of personal violation for many women due to the rushed, tense and uninviting atmosphere. The mikvah attendants, due to their own time pressures and limited or no support staff may not be attuned to the sensitivities that go along with the vulnerable state that a woman experiences being physically exposed in the presence of another person.
The following is a draft of a proposed 'Mikvah User's Bill of Rights', developed collaboratively, with feedback from a group of mikvah users that include both lay as well as mental health professionals. This is a work in progress and comments are welcome by mikvah users, mikvah board members as well as rabbinic leadership.
Photo credit: Kerem Karaarslanon unsplash