Immersing in Climate Change
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Immersing in Climate Change

Laurie Zoloth makes a compelling case for feminists to take up climate change as integral to feminist ethical concerns. Zoloth contends that climate change will "throw [women's] rights, bodies, and fates into chaos" (141). Not only are women intimately involved in the daily collection and use of water, but they will also be the first harmed by water shortages caused by the environmental crisis. Feminists, Zoloth claims, as women's representatives, have a unique interest in stemming the tide of climate change. Additionally, feminist scholarly interest in justice and the reorganization of power structures should direct feminists to new climate change solutions. Zoloth maintains that these kind of feminist solutions will be both "ethical" moral behaviors about individual consumption as well as "political ([acts] as citizens within democratic states)" (142). Although others have cited feminism and environmental ethics as familiar compatriots, Zoloth's articulation of their connection and her incorporation of religious texts from Abrahamic faiths act as important emphasis for the feminist religious ethical community.1 I will continue with Zoloth's literal and metaphorical discussion [End Page 162] of water, focusing on Jewish women's usage of mikvah to stress that religious rituals can motivate women in their ethical commitment to climate change.

Although the waters of the mikvah have a few purposes in contemporary Jewish practice, the most common is by traditionally observant married women for a monthly immersion following their menstrual period and seven "clean" days. This monthly cycle is known as niddah. When women are in the niddah status, they maintain a variety of stringencies intended to restrict physical and intimate contact with their husbands. Following their periods, women begin seven days of twice-daily internal checking with pieces of white cloth to ensure the bleeding has ceased. After seven days of clean checks, women prepare for immersion in a mikvah, a ritual bath. As they prepare for their immersion, women remove all impediments to direct contact with the water: clothing, jewelry, makeup, contact lenses, nail polish, and dirt, for example. This ensures that the water touches every crevice of a woman's body when she immerses. Women immerse in the waters of the mikvah three or seven times, depending on their custom, and recite a standard blessing recounting the commandment to immerse and often other blessings related to fertility or family protection.2

Feminist critique of niddah and mikvah abounds, focusing particularly on the ways in which men control women's bodies and sexuality through mikvah regulations.3 In Israel, male rabbinic authorities heavily regulate mikvah usage, restricting access to the mikvah to married women and setting the standard for how women prepare for immersion. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel also encourages all women, beginning with pre-wedding classes, to observe the laws of niddah. On their wedding day, regardless of denominational affiliation, Israeli Jewish women, are required to present to their officiating rabbi a certificate confirming their immersion in the mikvah the previous night. Rabbis also send female religious counselors door to door to convince women of the benefits they claim will follow from observance of these laws.4 Although female authorities observe a woman's immersion, these women are representatives of the rabbinic establishment that oversees [End Page 163] almost all of the mikvaot (pl. mikvah) in Israel. Many balaniot (mikvah attendants) see themselves as extensions of rabbinic authorities.5 Male rabbinic authority, therefore, largely controls women's observance of a particularly intimate set of laws.

Women who observe niddah laws have responded to this male control in a number of ways that might be instructive for thinking about the connection between feminism and climate change. To be sure, many women struggle with the implementation of menstrual purity regulations. Tova Hartman and Naomi Marmon found that among Orthodox Jewish women living in Jerusalem, many feel oppressed by the laws of niddah. They write, "To say that these women felt stifled by the niddah requirements would be a grave understatement; 'suffocated' comes closer to encapsulating their responses. They experienced the ritually imposed cycle of separation and closeness as a series of deprivations and degradations in violent opposition to their psychological and emotional health."6 These...


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