Monday, January 24, 2011

Shomeret Duty

Last night was my first time acting as shomeret at the mikvah since I fell seriously ill in early 2007. A mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath composed of tap and rain water mixed together. It is used at various transition points, such as after a woman's menstrual period, before marriage, and as the final step in conversion to Judaism. A shomeret is a woman who witnesses another woman's immersion to make sure she is completely covered by the water and has correctly prepared her body pre-immersion. Some mikvaot [plural of "mikvah"] have paid shomrot [plural of "shomeret"], but the one at my synagogue is completely staffed by volunteers. Participation is critical, because an immersion usually isn't valid unless it is witnessed.

I was struck last night by how gratifying this service is. Women using the mikvah may be vulnerable; some of them are desperate to conceive, and others may be using the mikvah for the first time after a miscarriage. I'd argue that anyone using the mikvah is a little vulnerable, since you're naked in front of a peer for a short period of time. There can be a lot of emotion caught up in mikvah use as well; I believe there is a conspiracy of fantasy among Orthodox Jews when it comes to discussing taharat hamishpacha (the laws of family purity, which govern when you can be physically intimate with your partner). There are many books talking about the "gift" of taharat hamishpacha to your marriage, usually all along the same lines: your marriage will be revitalized by the regular cycle of abstaining from sex. When you are finally able to make love again, it'll feel like the first time, and other bullshit along those lines. I'd love to write a real-life manual for Orthodox women, which would include the following:

*You are most likely to be amorous during the time that you're forbidden from having sex
*You will resent the assumption that you will have sex on your set mikvah night. Furthermore, since you can only go after dark, you will be too tired to have sex after a long day at work followed by preparing for immersion and actually running the errand itself.
*Going to the mikvah will usually not be the ultra-spiritual experience promised in books on taharat hamishpacha.

I think this would be a self-published book, as I don't see Feldheim Publishers picking it up. I don't mean to be negative; my feelings about using the mikvah have waxed and waned over 14 years of use, and there are some really beautiful things about it. I just resent the rose-colored glasses that color traditional forums that discuss this topic.

Anyway, back to shomeret duty. For the reasons mentioned above and many others, I feel like the quality of a woman's mikvah experience can be the difference between her choosing to follow this mitzvah [commandment] or not, or the difference between her finding it tolerable or not, and I think the quality of her shomeret has a lot to do with that. Last night, I felt like by being pleasant, hopefully soothing, and respectful of women's privacy to the degree that I could be, I made a difference in the quality of their experience. I think being a shomeret carries a lot of privilege with it: at the very least, you make a routine errand pleasant; at the most, perhaps you give positive energy to someone who hopes to conceive that month.  I was grateful to be able to be of service in this capacity.

Ironically, one of the women who immersed last night said, "Weren't you one of the people who started this mikvah?" I said I was the president at the time it opened. She went on to effusively thank me for my work and say how much she enjoys using this mikvah. That really touched my heart, especially because she identified herself as non-Orthodox. To me, that is really a mark of success for what the D.C. mikvah has accomplished: if people from outside the immediate religious community feel comfortable there, we must be doing something right. 

In an odd twist on this, my ability to give service in this capacity is dramatically tied to my recovery from food addiction. There are minimum observance requirements for shomrot stipulated in Jewish legal texts, and one of the most basic is that the shomeret keeps kosher, which means adhering to Jewish dietary laws. Most of the members of my synagogue keep kosher kitchens at home, but don't fully keep kosher, meaning they eat food prepared in non-kosher establishments (I try not to have judgments about this, until otherwise-smart people go to great lengths to convince themselves that their fish is not being handled by the tongs that are toasting the BLT next to it. Or that their vegetarian pizza cooking in the 600 degree oven is segregated from the pepperoni and sausage pie one tray away. As someone who worked in food service, I can tell you this is laughable). Because most of my synagogue members don't strictly keep kosher, we have trouble finding qualified shomrot in our community.

When our mikvah opened in July 2005, I was still leading an outwardly Orthodox lifestyle, but bingeing almost daily on non-kosher food. I came to a crossroads: was it more important to spend a lot of money at Burger King and feel guilty all the time about my hypocrisy, or could I actually make something in my life more important than food? Because that's what I'd have to do if I wanted to give much-needed service to the mikvah. I chose to put the needs of my community above my own desires, which happened to be soul-killing, and that dovetailed nicely with recovering from my food addiction. I make no promises about not eating in non-kosher restaurants "forever," but for today, I'm sticking with that choice, and I'm glad I made it.


shoshana.danon-perkins said...

I had meaning to drop you a note when I saw that you were on the schedule. I was hoping that your return was another step in your (hopefully full) recovery. You had mentioned in the past that it was still physically difficult for you and I was also planning to check in afterward to see how the experience was for you physically. It seems like things went well, which I am glad to hear.

I would be happy to contribute to a book that speaks to the reality of the mikvah experience. My problem begins with the fact that Taharat HaMishpacha isn't discussed openly, or that it is frowned up to do so. I think this adds to the stress that brides might be feeling before (and after) their weddings. I'm not saying that it needs to be a dinner conversation (although I guess it could be in some folks' homes, with certain company), but it shouldn't be something that is discussed in hushed tones around woman. I'm not saying that we need to tell when we are going but we should be able to discuss it in general terms, or at the very least that this mitzvah exists and that thousands of women keep it.

Your list of fallacies is spot on. It falls in line with my thought that we should be able to talk about these things among ourselves (i.e. "women"). I would love a forum to discuss issues encountered, things we find annoying, and even some funny incidents. I am betting that there are hundreds of woman who are not having the "beautiful mikvah experience" and are tortured because they are not having this wonderful experience that their teacher described. They probably think they are the only one, which is so far from the truth. It is perfectly okay to keep it just because "that's the rules". It's okay to find it a burden.

When I was making the fianl step towards eating kosher only (as opposed to my years of "vegetarian in treif places"), I did it day/situation by day/situation. I couldn't guarantee that I wasn't going to buy the supermarket sushi tomorrow, but today, standing here in front of it, I was making the decision not to buy it. It took a very long time to change from being a decision to being something that I just didn't do.

Sarah said...

Shoshana, thank you for your insightful and thoughtful comments. I agree that there are thousands of women who aren't having the spiritual experience they think they should be having with taharat hamishpacha, and they probably think that they're doing something wrong. I wish this were discussed more forthcomingly.

Anonymous said...

I came across this post when looking for a link how to explain "shomeret". I agree that these questions you have are too valuable to leave unexplored. Why don't you ask a yoetzet halacha ( to come speak to your community? I'm sure you can find someone who can help you with these very essential issues.