I’m writing now to put forth my position on the topic of mikvah immersion for unmarried women. I’m certainly not the first to speak about this topic. I’ve heard that Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg suggested, as early as forty years ago, that unmarried women be permitted to go to the mikvah, so as to avoid incurring the penalty of karet (lit. cutting off – the meaning is not entirely certain, but is usually understood as being spiritually eviscerated from the Jewish people) when engaging in premarital sex. Rabbi Greenberg’s position was not welcomed, to say the least.I think Rabbi Greenberg’s position simply didn’t go far enough. It is my belief that all Jewish women, from Bat Mitzvah until menopause, should immerse in the mikvah monthly. From a purely halachic perspective there is no true ban on unmarried women going to the mikvah, and unmarried women did go to the mikvah in the past, prior to participating in the Paschal sacrifice, or prior to touching consecrated goods, priestly tithes and so forth. However, given that premarital sex is forbidden (even if only rabbinically), over the last two thousand years there has been no reason to allow unmarried women to go to the mikvah.
Until today. Based on various studies of American sexuality, Jewish women remain abstinent longer and have fewer sexual partners than their non-Jewish counterparts. However, it is clear that most Jewish women do not come to their marriage beds in virgin white. Interestingly, no Jewish denomination supports or condones premarital sex. The Conservative movement has crept towards an acceptance of premarital sex in monogamous, committed relationships, but I haven’t found any official responsa permitting it. In other words, Jewish denominations have taken the Nancy Reagan approach to premarital sex – just say no.
That approach has proven as ineffectual for premarital sex as it was for drugs. Just as today, US citizens regularly flout inane and draconian drug laws and pay no regard to the dictates of their own legal system, Jews have premarital sex, not even paying lip service to the rabbis and teachers who preach against it. Today, rabbis of every denomination have simply been cut out of the conversation. I personally know of quite a few non-Orthodox parents who have urged their adult children to have premarital sex. Many of them would consider it a mistake to marry while still a virgin, and advise their children to ‘get to know’ their bodies and their sexuality prior to marriage. With the age of marriage climbing in every Jewish denomination, it becomes unreasonable and in some ways even perverse to insist on virginity for the first thirty years of life.
We need to find a way for religious teachings about sex to be heard again. It is true and immutable that Jewish history and halacha speaks out against premarital sex, but it is also true that the Jewish community of today lives in times never before lived, and in societies never before imagined. As other rituals fade or lose their hold over the Jewish imagination, the ritual of Mikvah has found new life. Non-traditional mikvah ceremonies to mark life transitions have become increasingly popular, and even traditional mikvah observance has gained new adherents outside of the Orthodox community. Aside from the pressing halachic concern of the need to prevent issurei karet, there is a more desperate need to bring sexuality back into the religious domain. We need something better than ‘just say no’.
I believe that Jewish women would serve well, and be well-served by, the monthly purification ritual. The cyclical separation from sex would grant couples space and freedom from the throbbing claims of the sexual instinct, and give them new insights into their relationships. I believe it will reduce the instances of premarital sex, and certainly of casual sex outside the framework of a committed relationship. I believe that it will provide another door into Jewish observance and relevance, and that it will strengthen the commitment of Jewish women to express their Judaism in concrete ways. And of course, a woman who goes to the mikvah before she weds will almost surely go after she weds.