Commentary Magazine


The Mikveh, Cont'd

To the Editor:

In an otherwise excellent article, [“Moving the Mikveh,” September], Sanford J. Ungar remarks that Jewish community centers in cities other than Wilkes-Barre are “usually run according to the tenets of Reform Judaism.”

. . . This comment reflects a lack of knowledge about the nature of Jewish community centers and YM-YWHA’s throughout the country. . . . Though they are indeed institutions of the Jewish community, they seek to serve a cross-section of Jewish individuals and families, regardless of their synagogue affiliation, or indeed of whether or not they have any such affiliation. On such matters as kashruth, the Sabbath, etc., community centers and Y’s run the gamut from Re-constructionist to Orthodox. . . . Then, too, one must question Mr. Ungar’s criteria. The fact that an institution is closed on the Sabbath or observes the dietary laws does not necessarily tell us very much about how “Jewish” it is. In fact, one could probably make out a case to prove that certain centers which ar open on the Sabbath are more “Jewish” than those which aren’t.

In sum, before Mr. Ungar attempts to make blanket characterizations of all such institutions, he should devote at least as much study to them as he has to the city of Wilkes-Barre itself.

Joel M. Carp
Program Director
YM & YWHA of Mid-Westchester
Eastchester, New York

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To the Editor:

Sanford J. Ungar errs in stating, “It was Rabbi Akiba who finally declared that purification could only be achieved through a ritual bath.”

This statement is based on a misunderstanding of the context in which Rabbi Akiba’s opinion is recorded, in Tractate Sabbath 64b of the Babylonian Talmud. The debate there is not about the means of purification at all, . . . but about whether a woman may use cosmetics and other means of beautification during the period of ritual uncleanness. In the parallel passage of the Jerusalem Talmud—end of Tractate Gittin—it is stated very clearly that the predecessors of Rabbi Akiba . . . also were of the opinion that purification could be achieved through immersion only.

Purification rituals for women have been practiced by the Jews from time immemorial, as can be seen from a casual remark in II Samuel 11:4. It is interesting to note that even the Falasha, who are not acquainted at all with rabbinical tradition, practice the purification rites through immersion and therefore place all their settlements near streams. The mikveh excavated at Masada—obviously dating back prior to the time of Rabbi Akiba—was found to comply in all details with rabbinic law as practiced today. . . .

Mr. Ungar . . . does not explain at all why those rites, which according to his words, “were meant to apply to both men and women—and even to inanimate objects” are observed now by women only. Actually, the purification rites for humans and inanimate objects were connected mainly with the Temple and therefore became defunct after its destruction. However, women have to undergo ritual purification also because of the injunction contained in Leviticus 18: 19, which is, of course, still valid and therefore observed by strictly Orthodox Jews. . . .

Yeheskel Etzion
New York City

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Mr. Ungar writes:

I was not concerned with “how Jewish” an institution is, as Mr. Carp hints, but rather with its degree of attachment to traditional Judaism—and in this sense, the Jewish community center and its practices provided one among many examples of the high degree of traditional observance which goes along with the strong religious affiliation among the Jews of Wilkes-Barre. Therefore, it was consistent with its other institutions for the Jewish community to maintain a mikveh.

My information was that—despite the diversity that exists among Jewish community centers throughout the country—Wilkes-Barre’s was in the minority in this regard. Whether it or Mr. Carp’s YM-YWHA is “more Jewish” than any other is irrelevant to my article, and for that sort of determination I bow to the expertise of Mr. Carp.

Professor Charles Liebman’s letter, published in your last issue [November], reached me too late to reply. But just for the record, I have this to say: I thank Mr. Liebman for pointing to the error in my statistics, but his estimate that 4 per cent of those eligible use the mikveh may be no better than my 1 per cent. I have not seen the sex ratio and age breakdown of the 1957 Bureau of the Census study to which he refers, but if he calculates that a thousand women are eligible (the letter does not mention an exact number), 4 per cent is correct only if forty women use the mikveh. That was the highest estimate of number of users in my piece, and Mr. Liebman is being optimistic. The range of estimates is from seventeen to forty, so in fact we may only say that between 1.7 and 4 per cent use the mikveh.

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