The ceremony that follows was put together for me by my friend and my rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman after my rape in November 1989. The ceremony marks my particular experience and desire to heal. It is a ritual that speaks to the specific place I had come to in my healing on November 24, 1989. I went to the mikveh 1 with Sue Ann and my mother a few days after my first period after the rape. It was erev Shabbat. Since November I have had other ways of marking time since the rape. My body has overcome a multitude of diseases punctuated by visits to doctors. This has been ongoing. I just took my second HIV test. I have had to wait over six months for definitive results. Although I have maintained my professional life from the beginning, both teaching and studying, it has taken much time to recover other aspects of my life. I have slowly resumed having a fantasy life and a sex life, but I still long for a time when I will be able to live alone again.
Although I grew up in a religious Reform Jewish home, mikveh was not a part of my background. I became interested in mikveh and the laws of family purity while in rabbinical school. My interest stemmed from my need and desire to find parts of my tradition that spoke to me as a woman. I read and wrote and thought about mikveh as a woman's ritual both past and present. My practical knowledge of mikveh has come through my work with people who are converting to Judaism. I became convinced of its power to provide a meeting place for people and God, thorugh listening to my students speak about their experience and how significant the mikveh was as a conclusion to their formal study for conversion.2
Healing is a process. This mikveh ceremony is distinct in that it represents one of the few ways that I have been able to attend to my spiritual as well as my physical and emotional healing. Sharing this ceremony with other Jewish women is part of this healing. It is a way for me to give something of myself to other Jewish women, especially those who have been sexually abused. I want them to know that they are not alone. I also want them to know that there is a place for us and even our most painful experiences to be commemorated in Jewish community/ies.
My body was violated by rape. The mikveh offered me a place to acknowledge both that violation and my desire to heal. My need for ritual was very real. I needed to do something concrete to express my psychic and physical pain as a Jewish woman among other Jewish women I am close to.
For me, healing is not simply a return to some "wholeness" in the past; it is an experience of growth and change. Healing is the careful rebuilding of a life in the present that does not deny what has happened.
When Laura was raped, I wanted to find a way to support her as her friend. As a rabbi, I needed to find a way for Judaism to respond to her. The mikveh seemed to be the most appropriate ritual for several reasons. (1) It was predominantly our foremothers' ritual. (2) It requires the whole body. (3) Its waters flow in and out – representing continuity and process. (4) Its waters symbolically flow from Eden, a place of wholeness. (5) The natural waters remind us of the constant intermingling presence of the Creator in our own lives. (6) Finally, water itself is cleansing, supportive, and life sustaining.
The task then was to find words that would give this ancient ritual meaning in the context of Laura's experience. I drew on the sources at hand and included my own words as well as asking Laura to bring whatever readings she thought would be healing for her.
The poems I chose to read during the mikveh ceremony reflect these feelings. Like the narrator in Irena Klepfisz's "Di rayze aheym" (The journey home),3 I too wanted to return "home" but knew that the home I knew before the rape was no longer accessible to me. Nevertheless, I still needed a home. Healing has meant that I have had to rebuild a new life where I can attend to my scars while also experiencing joy again. I have had to rebuild my life "even from a broken web."4 These words, the poetry of contemporary Jewish women, have helped me articulate some of these feelings, but to speak them at the mikveh made them physically tangible.
Historically, the mikveh is a sacred space for Jewish women and our bodies. Through this ceremony, I was able to enter into that tradition. Sue Ann helped me reconstitute this place to attend to my own physical needs for healing. In a steamy room overlooking a pool of running water in a synagogue in Atlanta, we recited these words and I entered the water. In so doing, the violation of my Jew-ish female body was attended to. It was neither silenced nor ig-nored.
We stood together at the mikveh, the three of us, reading a liturgy that had been created in a day, to prepare us to perform a ritual that has existed for centuries. It was a powerful and empowering experience, but it was only a first step in the creation of a new liturgy that will speak to those who seek healing after a rape or any form of sexual abuse.
According to the Talmud, the ultimate source of all water is the river that emerged from Eden. By immersing ourselves in the mikveh, we participate in the wholeness of Eden. Natural water is required for a mikveh because water is a symbol of the life forces of the universe. Fundamentally, mikveh is not about "uncleanliness" but about human encounters with the power of the holy.5
To be read around by paragraph:
"In our tradition, water has always played a pivotal role. There is something elemental about it. Before the world was created, there existed the presence of God hovering over the surface of the water.
When, in the times of Noah, God wished to make a new beginning of life on earth, the fountains of the deep were opened and waters came forth, returning the earth to its pristine beginnings.
Our patriarchs and matriarchs met at the well, for the source of water was the center of community life. Thus the well, the source of water, marked the promise of new beginnings in their lives.
Water is also a sign of redemption in our People's history. It was the waters of the Red Sea that parted and allowed us to go forth from bondage into freedom.
Water is also a symbol of sustenance. Miriam, the sister of Moses, was deemed to be so righteous, that during her lifetime, when the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, God caused a well, Miriam's well it was called, to accompany the people and sustain them with water."6
"Anger and tenderness: my selves.
And now I can believe they breathe in me
as angels, not polarities.
Anger and tenderness: the spider's genius
to spin and weave in the same action
from her own body, anywhere
even from a broken web." 7
"Di rayze aheym8" (The journey home, by Irena Klepfisz)
This ceremony is to help bring closure to your physical healing and cleansing. Your physical injuries are fading. You've done much cleaning; your apartment, your body, with soaps and masks, and miraculously your body has cleansed itself through menstruation.
This ceremony is also an attempt to help you begin the spiritual and emotional healing you must do. I see these mikveh waters as symbolic of two things. First, the tears you have yet to cry. Perhaps being surrounded by them from the outside will release them from the inside. Second, we do not sink in water but rather are buoyed up by it. It supports us gently. This is like your community of friends and family who have kept you afloat and sustained you. We, like the waters, are messengers of the Shekhinah.9 The Divine Presence is made present in your life through our loving and embracing arms and through the warm caress of these living waters.
Now, as I immerse myself, I begin a new cycle in my life.
May my entry into the waters of the mikveh strengthen me for the journey that lies ahead. 10
"Water is God's gift to living souls, to cleanse us, to purify us, to sustain us and renew us." 11
Immersion and then recite:
Barukh attah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al ha-t'vilah.
B'rukhah At Ya Eloheinu ruach ha-olam asher kid'shatnu b'mitzvoteha v'tzivatnu al ha-t'vilah.
Praised are you, Adonai, God of all creation, who sanctifies us with your commandments and commanded us concerning immersion.
Immersion and then recite:
Barukh attah Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, shehechiyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higianu, la-z'man ha-zeh.
B'rukhah at Adonai, Eloheinu malkat ha-olam, shehechiatnu, v'kiy'matnu, v'higiatnu, la-z'man ha-zeh.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this season.
Immersion for a third and final time.
Following the immersion
Read around by stanzas:
"God give us the strength to transcend setbacks and pain to put our difficulties into perspective
God give us the strength to fight against all forms of injustice, whether they be subtle or easily apparent
God give us the strength to take the path less traveled and more disturbing
God give us the strength to persevere to reach out to those in need – may we abandon none of your creations
May we never become callous or apathetic because of our own disappointments
May our personal pain never be used as an excuse to stop heeding your call
God give us the strength to continually strive to do more
Let us always strive to give, even if we, ourselves, feel alone or impoverished
For we must always strive to reach beyond ourselves."13
1. mikveh has many meanings in Hebrew. It is a confluence of water, a reservoir, a pool, or a ritual bath. Mikveh is also understood to be a source of hope and trust, another name for God. The mikt'ah ceremony refers to the ritual of immersion in such a place for purposes of ritual purification. According to halakhah, Jewish law, the ritual of immersion is required for conversion to Judaism, but it is most commonly associated with "laws of family purity." Within monogamous heterosexual Jewish marriages, "as menstruation begins, a married couple halts all erotic activities. A minimum of five days are considered menstrual, then seven 'dean' days are observed with the same restrictions. After nightfall of the seventh day, the woman bathes herself... and immerses herself in a special pool built to exacting specifications" (Susan Weidman Schneider, Jewish and Female: A Guide and Sourcebook for Today's Jewish Woman [New York: Touchstone, 19851, 204; see pp. 203-13 for an extended discussion of the ritual and its revival).
2. mikveh is a part of the traditional conversion process. To convert to Judaism one must engage in formal study of the tradition and, having done so for a significant period of time, must agree to take on the obligations of the tradition. According to halakhah, the ceremony that marks this transition is mikveh. Immersion concretizes the transformation that has already been achieved through study and obligation. In Reform Judaism, ritual immersion is an optional part of the conversion process.
4. Adrienne Rich, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems, 1978-1981 (New York: Norton, 1981), 9.
5. Anita Diarnant, The New Jewish Wedding (New York: Summit, 198S), 151.
6. Jeffrey Perry-Marx, "A Ceremony of Tevilih," unpublished manuscript used in a Senior Rabbinic workshop on Outreach given by Rabbi Nina Mizrachi at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, New York, spring 1987.
7. Adrienne Rich, A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems, 1978-1981(New York: Norton, 1981), 9.
8. Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz, eds., The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Woman's Anthology (Montpelier, Vt.: Sinister Wisdom 29/30, 1986), 49-52.
9. The Shechinah is the Divine Presence in the world, the in-dwelling or immanent presence of God. Jewish mystical literature describes this presence as female. In the mystical tradition, the Shechinah is the feminine principle of God to be found in the world.
10. From "A Bridal Mikveh Ceremony," written by Barbara Rossman Penzener and Amy Zwiback-Levcnson, in Diamant, The New Jewish Wedding, 157-58.
12. Perry-Marx, "A Ceremony of Tevilih."
13. This prayer was written by Angela Graboys and Laura Rappaport. It is found in a daily service they edited, "ROW Service," an unpublished manuscript, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. ROW is an organization for women rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.