No Ordinary Bath: Using the Mikveh to Heal From Incest

By Yonah Klem


I heard a story recently, whose details may not be quite accurate by this telling, but the essence of it is probably true. A rabbi was invited to be a guest lecturer at a small New England college. One of his talks was about violence in the Jewish family. After the lecture, a Jewish student who heard it went home and told her father, a major financial contributor of the lecture series. The father promptly withdrew his financial backing. As I recall the tale, the reasons the father gave were twofold: First of all, we Jews must never give our enemies ammunition with which to persecute us; and, second, he asserted that there is no violence in Jewish homes. The message here is "it doesn't happen with us, and don't talk about it." The truth is, it does happen with us, and almost no one is willing to talk about it.

While the subject of incest does occur in many books on Judaism, it is almost invariably presented in terms of the Biblical prohibitions against it. At the time this paper was being researched there were very few references in books books (Bass and Davis, 1988; Umansky and Ashton, 1992) to childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by Jewish parents or relatives upon Jewish children. There was nothing at all on the use of the mikvah (ritual bath) in healing from incest. My search of various periodical indices uncovered many articles about childhood sexual abuse, incest and adult survivors, but little about these issues in the context of the Jewish family. My purpose will be to address the broader issue of Jewish family incest, and to describe how a uniquely Jewish resource can be of help in the healing process.


While there may not be published statistics on the prevalence of incest and childhood sexual abuse in the Jewish community, the problem is hardly unknown. When I spoke to the director of the Orthodox Jewish shelter for battered women in the Chicago area and said there must be incest survivors among their clientele, she readily agreed. Every counselor and psychotherapist I know who works with Jewish clients knows of Jewish incest survivors (all of whom were women in this very informal survey). Without making any attempt at a scientific survey I spoke to Reform, Reconstructionist and Orthodox rabbis who know Jewish survivors in their congregations or communities. The studies may not have been done, but the abuse and its legacy of distress is evident to anyone who looks for it.

Incest and childhood sexual abuse, like all other kinds of sexual abuse and assault, are about the perpetrator imposing his or her power and control over the child. The severity of the consequences depend on a number of factors including the frequency and severity of the trauma, the age of the child and the support she has if and when she complains. (Throughout this paper, the survivor will be referred to as female because most, although not all, are.) Because of these factors, adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and incest may manifest a large number and variety of symptoms. Some of them, such as a sense of shame and guilt, anger and anxiety. may be remnants from the days when the abuse was taking place. There may be symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder such as flashbacks, nightmares and unnecessary hyperalertness. Secondary symptoms, such as addictions, sexual acting out and self-injury, may actually be outgrowths of the original, untreated symptoms.

Many survivors repress or dissociate their memories, especially of events that were psychologically and physically too overwhelming to manage with the resources available at the time. When the memories return, in a situation where the adult incest survivor has support and validation for the significance and reality of her experience, she is likely to re-experience the feelings she was trying to avoid: feelings of betrayal, shame, dirtiness, guilt, denial, rage and grief. Her relative ability (or lack of it) to manage these feelings may create more distress. Remembering can feel like re-experiencing the original abuse.

Recovery from the destructive aftermath of childhood sexual abuse involves a number of fairly predictable stages, although the process generally involves going back and forth between them, rather than a linear progression. The first is remembering and owning the knowledge that one is an incest survivor. Then, the unexpressed feelings, especially of anger and grief, need to be acknowledged and expressed in a healthy way.

Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges of the recovery process is dealing with the pervasive sense of shame and victimhood that so many survivors feel. They must come to believe that they are entitled to the same benefits of a full life that people who were not victimized as children can enjoy. In my observation of many survivors it seems that the shift from victimhood to simple personhood is not just a shift in thought process and attitude. It is a paradigm shift, a fundamental alteration in the way the survivor understands herself in relation to the world. This is a spiritual as well as cognitive shift because ultimately it is an act of faith.


The cleansing ritual of the mikvah may have something very important to add to the spiritual aspect of recovering from incest. Currently, the mikvah pool and ritual immersion are used primarily by married Orthodox women seven days after the end of their menstrual cycle and before the resumption of sexual relations. The non-Orthodox Jewish community has thought of the rituals of the mikvah (if it has thought of the mikvah at all) as vaguely punitive, specifically anti-feminist, and somewhat superstitious relics of antiquity, having no place in present times. Orthodox women who use and claim to enjoy their monthly ritual are seen, by some of their less observant sisters, as brainwashed by a patriarchal halakah (law) into a distinctly second class status.

As befits any practice that has endured over at least several millennia, there is considerably more to the ritual of mikvah than most Jews outside the Orthodox community know. It is no ordinary bath. The purpose is not the cleansing of the body. Cleansing can and does take place just fine in the properly equipped bathroom. The purpose of the mikvah is spiritual cleansing or purification. Even more, the ritual was meant, from earliest times, to make a person ritually pure, or suitable to enter the Temple in Jerusalem.

In the days of the Temple, a person was considered ritually defiled (tomah) because of contact with or involvement with death and human imperfection. Immersion in the gathered waters of the mikvah not only cleansed a person of these defilements, but in doing so changed the person's status to ritually clean (tahor). The change of status is much like a rebirth: "When a person submerges himself [or herself] in a mikvah, he [or she] momentarily enters the realm of the non-living [because one cannot sustain life without breath, fully underwater], so that when he [or she] emerges, he [or she] is like one reborn." (Kaplan, 1982, p.14)

The idea of the cleansing waters washing away the defilement of human imperfection is to be found in the image of the great River flowing from the Garden of Eden. If the Temple was considered a miniature Garden of Eden, then immersion in the flowing waters of the Garden's River (represented by the natural waters of the mikvah) could properly prepare one for re- entering the state of perfection that existed in the Garden.These aspects of the mikvah ritual, the association with spiritual defilement through contact with death and human imperfection, and the idea of a rebirth or major change of status, are important for incest survivors. Survivors often talk about feeling dirty. This is the deep sense of defilement that only shame can produce. The shame can be the result of many factors and is generally impervious to both strong soap and strong argument. It is rooted in the victim paradigm that somehow the child deserved what abuse she got, or caused it, or asked for it, and she does not deserve anything else. The change of status from victim to thriving survivor is an important goal of the recovery process.

The incest experience is a kind of death. To a degree the child must stifle her urge to protest, to say no, to fight back in order to prevent the potentially more extreme dangers of abandonment by a caretaker upon whom she is still dependent. Sometimes attempts to protest are met with violence and death threats. After the experience itself is over, she must continue deadening herself in order not to be overwhelmed with feelings she cannot manage or express, and to keep secret what was done to her and by whom. Children who are repeatedly abused, especially if they are threatened and tortured, become expert at living half-dead lives. This requires a kind of change of status, from one who is emotionally and perhaps spiritually dead, to one who is more fully alive.

In the contemporary world, the mikvah is used most often by observant women for well established and traditional reasons. The mikvah can also be used by custom or design, rather than commandment, at other times for self--renewal and rebirth. For example, some observant men use the mikvah before major holidays or Shabbat (Sabbath). At least one person (Levitt and Wasserman, 1989) has reported using the mikvah in recovering from an adult rape experience. Canadian Reform Rabbi Elyse M. Goldstein has written about expanding the use of the mikvah to non-traditional, but valuable rituals for less observant Jewish women. Some women, like the client I will describe next, have quietly taken it upon themselves to seek out the spiritual "cleansing" of the mikvah ritual when nothing else seemed adequate.


Lcah M. (a pseudonym) is a professional woman in her mid40's living in the northern suburbs of Chicago. She has a solid, twenty-three year marriage to a chemist. Together they raised two sons and two daughters, who were in various stages of their college careers, when I met her. Leah had been in therapy twice before, successfully addressing the issues she had presented. She returned to deal with a persistent low grade depression and occasional strong urges to suicide ecen though, as she put it, everything was going right in her life. We worked together for several years during which I had a developing sense (which I did not share with her) that she had been sexually abused as a child. For a long time this was more evident from her symptoms than memories, of which there were very little.

The breakthrough occurred during one session. which was interrupted briefly by an emergency phone call. When I returned, Leah was curled up on the floor, and in a childlike voice began to tell me in detail about an assault by her uncle, who lived nearby. This memory, which emerged fully in the course of several sessions, was accompanied by shock and amazement, shame, fear, and, as she put it, "an incredible sense of dirtiness" which did not change no matter how much she bathed. It was that sense of dirtiness that led her to thinking about the mikvah when the initial shock wore off. Although I had no experience with the mikvah myself, I supported the idea completely.

Leah is a Reform Jew knew a little about the mikvah from magazine and newspaper articles. Except for two members of her congregation whom she knew had converted to Judaism, she did not know anyone who had ever gone to a mikvah. When she decided to explore the possibility she found that even her Rabbi could only give her a phone number that might lead to other phone numbers. The main Chicago area mikveah is not at all hard to find if you know where it is; otherwise it keeps a most modest profile.

After a number of phone calls Leah finally reached one of the mikvah contact people. A long call ensued in which Leah eventually said exactly why she wanted to come. The contact person was an observant Jew, and regular user of the mikvah. She was also well trained to thoughtfully and gently answer questions. She made it clear that even a non-observant middle-aged woman, who had no interest in using the mikvah in the more traditional ways, would be welcome. With Leah's consent, she arranged for someone to be there to greet her and personally help her in whatever ways she needed on the night she decided to go.

The contact person explained the rules about how to get ready to go to the mikvah, and advised Leah to follow them as much as she could. If the rule felt too uncomfortable Leah looked to the intent of the rule and tried to follow the intent in a way that was manageable for her. Throughout, her husband was very supportive.

Leah went to the mikveh the first and subsequent times without friends or relatives. She had not prepared any particular prayers for the occasion, but recited the standard blessing. What she did do was cry a lot, which had previously been difficult for her. She said that nothing profound or miraculous seemed to happen, yet she emerged feeling clean at a deep level, open and more whole. She went through the process slowly, as she had been advised, and, in the process, learned things about herself and her body she had not known before. Her experiences created intense outpourings of feeling, that were both cleansing and nourishing. Leah discovered that for her the mikvah experience was not a quick cure, but a very useful part of the healing process.


Questions emerged for me about what elements of the ritual made the experience so valuable, and how to present them so that other non-observant Jewish women (and men, too) might feel more comfortable about availing themselves of this addition to recovery. I also wondered how this experience might be extended for non--Jewish incest survivors who would not be able to go to a mikvah.

What seems most important about the mikvah ritual is precisely that it is a ritual and not an ordinary bath. What makes the process a ritual begins with setting the intent that the experience be out of the ordinary. It is more than just thinking, "I want this experience to be out of the ordinary." Setting the intent begins with noticing the onset of menstruation and choosing to cease all sexual activity at that point until after the immersion in the natural waters of the ritual bath. It continues with the maintenance of sexual abstinence throughout the menstrual period and the careful counting of the seven days after the menstrual flow has completely stopped, therefore heightening both awareness of the waiting, and building a sense of anticipation that something important and meaningful is going to take place.

When the day, finally comes (starting well after sunset in the Jewish fashion) the woman goes to a place that is different, not only in location, but also in the structure and content of the bath. At home, the bathroom is familiar and the water, the same that usually comes out of the tap. Leaving the ease and familiarity of home to bathe in a different bathroom, and then to go further to immerse in the natural waters in a pool that has no counterparts anywhere else, also builds expectation and intent.

The preparatory bath is also probably different for most women. Few people put as much time and attention to their daily bath or shower as they do getting ready for the ritual immersion. This bath involves hair washing, nail clipping, make-up removal, jewelry removal, ear cleaning, tooth brushing and even a belly button check. The body must be thoroughly clean and thoroughly bare, with nothing foreign on it.

As Rabbi Elyse M. Goldstein (1986) points out, more and more non-Orthodox women are reclaiming the mikvah to use for their own life cycle purposes. A valid purpose is to help cleanse the incest survivor of the sense of spiritual as well as physical defilement that often accompanies the recover and healing from childhood sexual abuse.

The fundamental elements of the ritual of immersion in the mikvah can be of use also for Jewish women or men who choose not to go to the mikvah, and for non-Jews as well. What is crucial to the process is a decision to create an event that will be meaningful. Planning the behavior, preparing and waiting with intent all seem important. The use of special water, or perhaps soap that was purchased specifically for the occasion, is useful. For example, the non-Jewish mother of a young woman who had been raped thoroughly scrubbed down the bathroom her daughter was to use for her cleansing ritual. The mother also adorned the room with candles and fresh flowers, and provided a tape of music put together for this event.

Laura Levitt and Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman (1989) describe the service they created for a ceremony of healing at the mikvah following Laura's rape in November of 1989. Their service included things they wrote, poetry they borrowed and traditional prayers. This process could be used by anyone. Non-Jews may wish to use prayer from their own religious traditions or elsewhere.

The question of whether other people should actively participate in the ceremony can be considered. Leah got support from her male Rabbi, her husband, a few very close friends and me, but no one there was aware of her purpose. Laura Levitt was joined by her mother and Rabbi Wasserman, who was also her friend.

There is obviously almost no precedent for the use of the mikvah for healing from incest and sexual abuse. This leaves the door open for creativity. Women who use the mikvah regularly speak of a sense of wholeness and a spiritual connection that they are fortunate enough to reclaim at least once a month. Non--observant Jewish incest survivors who need the healing qualities that the mikvah can provide can have them, too. Non-Jewish survivors can extract some essence of the original and create cleansing rituals of their own.

The use of natural waters in the ritual pool reminds us of the waters of Eden, from whence comes all the waters of the earth, with their nourishing and cleansing properties. For a short while the Jewish survivor of childhood sexual abuse and incest can be reconnected to that powerful image of perfection and peace, to be nourished and rejuvenated so she can continue her ongoing process of recovery.


Bass, E. and Davis, L. (1988). The Courage to Heal. New York: Harper and Row.

Blume, E. S. (1990). Secret Survivors. New York: Wiley.

Briere, J. N. (1992). Child Abuse Trauma: Theory and Treatment of the Lasting Effects. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications.

Courtois. C. A. (1988).Healing the Incest Wound. New York: W. W. Norton.

Fredrickson. R. (personal communication, March 22, 1991). Advanced clinical skills in the treatment of sexual abuse.

Goldstein, E. M. (1986). Taking Back the Waters: A Feminist Re-appropriation of the Mikvah. Lilith 15, 15-16.

Kaplan, A. (1982). Waters of Eden. National Conference of Synagogue Youth/Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America: New York, N.Y.

Levitt. L. and Wasserman, S. A. (1989 Mikvah ceremony for Laura. In E. M. Umansky and D. Ashton (Eds.). Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality (pp. 321-326). Boston: Beacon Press.

Umansky, E. M. and Ashton. D. (Eds.). (1992). Four Centuries of Jewish Women Spirituality. Boston: Beacon Press.

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