When I told friends that I intended to visit the mikveh before getting married last month, reactions varied from raised eyebrows to horror stories involving women's naked bodies being scrutinised and their knickers being sent to rabbis for inspection. Then there were the complaints about women being deemed impure during menstruation.
According to Jewish law, women should avoid touching their husbands during their periods (niddah) and then for a full seven days, after which time they immerse themselves in a bath containing natural rainwater and may resume sexual relations again.
I can understand that many would balk at the idea of not being intimate for two weeks a month. But I had not realised that visiting the mikveh itself was so controversial. In fact - despite not being Orthodox - I quite liked the idea behind it. If it were a Buddhist or Pagan tradition, they would no doubt have mikvehs at Glastonbury and Womad. So why are we as Jews embarrassed about one of the few positive commandments given to women?
During my visit, the attendant on hand to make sure my immersion was "kosher" was perfectly lovely. The changing areas and pool reminded me of a spa. I recited a special prayer for a bride which asked that my husband and I will find only each other attractive for the rest of our married life. Don't cringe, but I loved that I was able to feel spiritual whilst naked. I hadn't thought that was allowed in Judaism. For me, it was the perfect symbolic preparation for marriage. Afterwards, I felt renewed, refreshed and mindful of the significance of what I was about to do.
In America, Reform and Conservative women are reclaiming this mitzvah. In one Florida city, a day spa that offers hot stone massage, reflexology and hydrotherapy has been built with a mikveh attached. They see that internal wellbeing and external beauty can be linked. So why hasn't this practice been embraced and celebrated by women across the religious spectrum here in the UK?
For one thing, the subject of mikveh is quite alien to most of us until marriage, which in my case was at age 31. During a one-to-one learning session I was offered by the United Synagogue on Jewish marriages, I was told that - along with Shabbat and kashrut - mikveh was the third thing which defines us as Jews. If it is so important, why were we never taught about it at Hebrew classes?
When I naively mentioned to the teacher that I had thought these meetings would be about the foundations of a good Jewish marriage, she explained that mikveh was the foundation of a successful Jewish family. I understood her point. Research tells us that women tend to lose their sex drive in a long-term relationship, so maybe the Orthodox have got it right. Making sex sacred and creating rituals around it helps to keep it interesting. It would be helpful were non-Orthodox women - and men - introduced to these ideas before we became sexually active.
Perhaps we are also too quick to assume that family-purity laws were designed to repress women, or are "unfeminist". During the session, I admit I was a little disturbed by all the attention you are supposed to pay to your bodily fluids to determine whether you have finished menstruation. But then, this is consistent with all areas of rabbinical law and can surely be interpreted by an individual as they see fit - just as we embrace the parts of Shabbat that speak to us. I have since spoken to friends who refrain from sex only for seven days during their period, rather than the recommended two weeks. And some do have physical contact with their husbands during that time, even if they do not have actual sex.
As for women being unclean during their periods, my teacher said it meant that women were unholy after just losing a potential life. This may be US spin, but some women prefer not to have sex during their periods anyway. So perhaps this law was designed with women in mind.
Mikveh is still a new idea for me, and I have still not decided if it is something I will undertake regularly. But I am convinced that mikveh is positive. It encourages women to be in tune with their monthly cycle and gives them some space during a time when they might feel irritable or tetchy. They are supposedly able to feel more close to God than at any other time during immersion itself and have the ability to ask for whatever they want. Most importantly, a husband is obliged to spend the evening after mikveh paying attention to his wife.
What's not to like?