Rising from the Ritual Bath
Found In: Mikveh for Monthly Use: Niddah
By Rabbi Jill Hammer | Article
The ritual bath, the mikveh (gathering of waters), is an ancient Jewish tradition relating to the concept of taharah (ritual purity) and tumah (ritual impurity). In biblical times, the ritual purity system related to Temple worship. Taharah, in its original meaning, referred to a state of being able to approach sancta (such as the Temple) and tumah referred to a state of being unable to approach the same sancta, because of contact with death, illness, or with mysterious forces of life such as semen or childbirth (see Leviticus 12-15). Impurity could be contracted by approaching a corpse, by having a seminal emission, by certain illnesses, and by childbirth or menstruation. In modern times, the condition of tumah is now usually used to refer to women who have menstruated, given birth, or had an unusual vaginal discharge (a woman in a state of menstrual "impurity" is called niddah). Immersion in a mikveh can remove certain kinds of tumah, including the kind caused by menstruation and childbirth.
Since Talmudic times, Jews no longer relate to the laws of purity as a preparation for Temple worship. Anyone may approach a synagogue or a Torah, even if he or she is ritually impure. A Jewish man does not need to ritually immerse in order to pray if he has had a seminal emission, though in early Talmudic times he would have had to. However, according to biblical law, it is forbidden to have sexual intercourse with women who are menstruating or have recently given birth, until they have ceased bleeding, waited a certain period of time, and ritually immersed (Lev. 12:1-8; Lev. 15:19-30). Jewish legal authorities held that law to be binding even in the absence of a Temple. So traditionally, married Jewish women have continued to immerse in a ritual bath following their menses, before returning to a sexual relationship with their husbands. This practice, euphemistically called taharat hamishpachah (family purity), was considered by the Talmud to be one of the three special commandments given to women. Women observed it in every Jewish community and continue to observe it all over the world.
Since rivers are not the most modest or comfortable places to bathe in the nude, specially constructed baths that collect rainwater have been part of Jewish communities for millennia. Women go to these baths accompanied by a mikveh attendant, or shomeret (guardian), who checks to make sure that there are no stray foreign substances on the body before immersion takes place. mikveh is also used as a ritual "changemaker" to effect the conversion of non-Jews to Judaism. Because of its uses, mikveh is associated with spiritual change and renewal – it is, in effect, a rebirth ceremony. Men sometimes use mikveh as a cleansing ritual prior to Shabbat and holidays – this is a mystical practice observed by mystics and hasidim, among others. As will be noted later in this article, some individuals now use immersion in the mikveh as a healing ritual from illness or trauma, or to mark life events as varied as ordination, menopause, miscarriage, and divorce. But the primary use of mikveh is still by women who are observing the laws of taharat hamishpachah. As a rebirth ceremony with ancient roots, mikveh connects Jews with their earliest spiritual practices.
Some modern Jewish feminists critique the practice of mikveh as degrading or potentially degrading to the female body. They point to Talmudic and medieval texts that describe women as disgusting because of their menses, and other Talmudic, medieval and kabbalistic texts that speak of tumah as the result of spiritual decay or evil forces. Some also point out that for thousands of years, men have had no similar cycle of purity and impurity, so the state of impurity is only associated with women. These elements surrounding the use of mikveh cause some to reject the practice. Other women, including some who define themselves as feminists, feel compelled by the traditional practice of mikveh because of its Torah origin, its focus on the bodies of women, its emphasis on the spiritual potency of the menstrual cycle, and its potential for giving women "alone time." Still others cannot accept a traditional practice, but have revised the practice of mikveh to fit their own spiritual needs and to eliminate rituals and customs that they find problematic.
Traditional Practices around Menstruation
Stringent laws have accumulated around the practice of taharat hamishpachah. According to traditional Jewish law, women must wait seven "clean" (discharge-free) days before going to the mikveh, thus lengthening their time of sexual abstinence to almost two weeks. Women must zealously check to make sure that their flow is over. They must bathe and clean themselves, clip their nails and remove every stray strand of hair from their bodies before immersing. Brides must separate from their husbands after first intercourse if there has been bleeding. Husbands and wives are forbidden to touch one another or even sleep in the same bed while the wife menstruates. Childbirth entails an even longer period of abstinence. While many contemporary Jews have entirely abandoned these laws, and some traditional Jewish women have modified them, many Jews in Orthodox communities observe them exactly as they were observed throughout history, and consider them central to Jewish life. Women from the cold countries of Europe tell stories of chopping holes in the ice in order to immerse at the proper time, and there are ritual baths from Brazil to Italy to Japan.
There has been a tremendous surge in the publication of traditional guides to mikveh in recent years, precisely because the practice has been observed less in the modern period, even among traditional women. Modern Orthodox literature concerning mikveh describes the details of observance, explaining exactly what kind of stain must be regarded as the onset of menstruation, how to check to make sure one's period is over, how to build and maintain a proper mikveh, what kinds of scabs must be removed from the body before immersion, and so forth. This literature also includes a wealth of folklore and stories about holy women at the mikveh, and specifically explains mikveh use as a profound and beautiful expression of Jewish womanhood. From early books written by men like A Hedge of RosesWaters of Eden (Norman Lamm) and (Aryeh Kaplan) to later books written by learned women, like the anthology Total Immersion edited by Rivkah Slonim (Jason Aronson, 1996) and The Secret of Jewish Femininity by Tehilla Abramov (Targum Feldheim, 1988), these volumes provide systems of meaning that place the observance of mikveh at the center of married life and at the center of women's relationship to God.
The reasons given for the sexual separation and ritual bathing entailed by the laws of mikveh are varied. Some call these practices a divine gift to help couples maintain romantic attraction. Some explain the system of ritual purity and impurity as a theological statement about the forces of life and death (see later section on Rachel Adler). Some believe observing this commandment ensures that one's future children will be spiritually pure. And some call mikveh a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of a biblical commandment, a fulfillment of God's will. Some modern interpreters, drawing on feminist imagery, say the period of separation is a sacred dormancy period when women can refresh and renew themselves. Prominent Orthodox writer Blu Greenberg, among others , has defended mikveh as a practice that sanctifies women's lives (Greenberg, Blu. "In Defense of the 'Daughters of Israel': Observations on Niddah and Mikveh." In On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition. JPS, 1981). Anita Diamant asserts that some Orthodox women see mikveh "in terms of automony and separateness...[or] in terms of celebrating the ability of their body to regenerate" (Sapiro, Susan. "Living Waters: An Interview with Anita Diamant," in Journey, Spring 2002, 22-25). Anne Lapidus Lerner reports that many Conservative women rabbis and rabbinical students are committed to the practice of mikveh as part of their religious obligation (A Breath of Life, p. 137). These convictions stand in contrast to those who say that taharat hamishpachah and mikveh are a way of denying the holiness of the body and reinforcing women's subservient place in Jewish life.
However people interpret the laws around niddah (women's menstrual impurity), this ancient practice is a topic of interest for many modern Jews, even those who do not observe it. Trips to ancient and modern mikva'ot (pl. of mikveh) are common, and many Jews have expressed interest in learning more about Jewish practice related to the ritual bath. Books like Women and Water by Rahel Wasserfall (Brandeis University Press, 1999) satisfy that curiosity by providing details about the law and practice of tumah and taharah from biblical times to the present. Some traditional ceremonies, such as the custom of Sephardic women celebrating with a bride as she goes to the mikveh for the first time, or reciting special t'chinot (women's prayers) before and after going to the mikveh, have been revived or widely adopted in order to enhance the experience of immersion (see Diamant, Anita. The New Jewish Wedding. Fireside, 1985, p. 152-154). Because mikveh is one of the only Jewish practices that was largely associated with women, many women desire to reclaim it, in order to retain a practice that has been uniquely associated with women.
Rethinking mikveh: The Case of Rachel Adler
As a young Orthodox woman, Rachel Adler wrote a seminal article re-envisioning tumah and taharah, ritual purity and impurity, as a positive experience for women (Adler, Rachel. "Tumah and Taharah: Endings and Beginnings." The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives. Ed. Elizabeth Koltun. Schocken Books, 1976). Like many modern Jewish women, Adler sought to reclaim Jewish traditions about women by reinterpreting them in a positive way. Adler spoke eloquently of how women, through their menses, embody the cosmic cycle of life, death, and rebirth, of darkness and light. She imagined menstruation as symbolic of loss, and mikveh as an expression of hope and life-giving potential. Adler pointed out that in Temple times purity and impurity applied to everyone, not only to women. She suggested that the forces of life and death, expressed through the ancient dichotomy of tumah and taharah, were both ultimately good, and that both menstrual separation and the return to sexual activity were holy phases of a woman's life. Many women were convinced by Adler's ideas, and it is now commonplace for Jewish women who write about mikveh to assert what Adler dared to put forward when it was a radical thought: that "impurity" and "purity" are equal parts of a sacred cycle. Adler created a way of looking at mikveh that allowed many women to feel good about mikveh as a spiritual practice.
Adler herself, over decades, came to believe that she had been wrong in her thinking. The women who met her at conferences and praised her for her ideas saddened and embarrassed her. Finally, twenty-five years later as a Reform theologian, she wrote a second article ("In Your Blood, Live: Re-visions of a Theology of Purity," in Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life, ed. Debra Orenstein and Jane Rachel Litman, Jewish Lights, 1997) in which she rejected her former philosophy. In this second article, Adler asserted that her first theory of mikveh had been a "slave theology" that purported to sanctify women while enabling their oppression. Adler pointed out that while she claimed that impurity applied to women and men, in actual Jewish life it only applied to women, thus associating women with death. She also re-analyzed biblical texts and indicated that while she imagined niddah (menstrual impurity) as a morally neutral term, the Bible used it as a word for corruption and filth (Lamentations 1:8,17). Adler indicated that her experience of Orthodox practice was that women were labeled as impure and were shut out from reading Torah or even from shaking hands with men because of this designation. She feared that her theology had provided an apologia for misogynistic practices, and wished to replace it with a theology in which purity and bodily reality can co-exist.
Adler's two articles represent the poles of Jewish women's experience regarding mikveh. From an uncritical acceptance of the ancient laws, Adler moved to an utter rejection of them, expressing the desire to re-imagine the entire Jewish definition of purity. Yet in her later article Adler praises the new and creative uses of mikveh that women have developed in recent years. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein trumpets creative approaches to the mikveh as a way of fundamentally altering the ritual's impact: "We reject its principal import as a tool of marriage and we open up other avenues for meaning...dip on Rosh Chodesh (the new moon)...open the mikveh during the day... turn the mikveh into a Jewish women's learning center...." (Goldstein, Elyse. ReVisions: Seeing Torah Through a Feminist Lens. Key Porter Books, 1998, p. 127-128). The alternative uses of mikveh that women and men have invented clearly play a role, for both traditional and non-traditional Jews, in redefining what mikveh means to the Jewish community.
How have Jewish ritual-makers reconstructed the practice of mikveh in new ways? Elyse Goldstein's early article "Take Back the Waters," published in Lilith in 1986 (vol. 15), was one of the first voices that trumpeted mikveh not as an agent of repurification after menstruation, but as a ritual of rebirth during both joyful and difficult times. Goldstein and others pointed out that the ritual bath, traditionally an agent of cleansing and changing, could be used to mourn a miscarriage, recover from a rape, or seek healing from an illness. Women rabbinical students could immerse in a mikveh to celebrate ordination. Women could use mikveh as men had traditionally used it, to welcome the Sabbath or prepare for the High Holidays. The options were limitless. While for some Jews these options were additions to the traditional ritual, for others, these new practices replaced the menstruation-related uses of the mikveh.
Now many Jewish feminist ritual-makers have composed new prayers and ceremonies using mikveh as a spiritual symbol of rebirth or renewal. Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Rabbi Vicki Hollander, and others have written new ceremonies that use mikveh for creative healing or transitional rituals (A Breath of Life, p. 137). Others use mikveh to mark periods of mourning death, divorce, or other traumas. Laura Levitt and Sue Ann Wasserstein movingly recount an immersion ritual meant to heal a woman after the trauma of rape (in Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality, ed. Ellen Umansky and Dianne Ashton, Beacon Press, 1992, p. 321-326). Some people also use mikveh as the center of a covenanting ceremony for baby girls, connecting the flowing waters with the new baby girl's potential for creativity and life-giving (Fishman, Sylvia Barack. A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community, Brandeis University Press, 1993, p. 125). Arthur Waskow and Phyllis Berman write in their life-cycle book A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2002) that mikveh "might provide the pool of meaning through which a baby girl enters the covenant" (p. 24). And some have written new prayers to focus the soul during immersion (Rose, Carol. "Introduction to Kavvanot for the mikveh." Worlds of Jewish Prayer: A Festschrift in Honor of Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi. Eds. Shohama Harris-Wiener and Jonathan Omer-Man. Jason Aronson, 1993).
Some have even created spiritual "mikvaot" out of swimming pools, air, music or loving hands. The idea is to create the feel of a mikveh rather than to conform to the Jewish legal requirements of a ritual bath. Penina Adelman's Miriam's Well, a guide to Rosh Chodesh rituals, celebrates the going out of Egypt with a "mikveh of song," through which each woman passes on her way to freedom (Adelman, Penina, Miriam's Well, Biblio Press, 1986, p. 71-72). Elat Chayyim, a Jewish retreat center in Accord, NY, has same-gender group mikveh experiences before Shabbat as part of their spiritual practice, though they don't use a traditionally permissible mikveh (sometimes, they use a hot tub!).
The theology behind these new rituals, like some earlier theologies about mikveh, views the ritual bath as a way of feeling God's presence, of celebrating the feminine, or of experiencing a spiritual rebirth. Some modern writers and poets even describe mikveh as a kind of womb, a returning to God's cosmic amniotic fluid. Ruth Finer Mintz, an Israeli poet, writes to God: "We return past the cup of salt and sorrow, to You, who are wine and water," evoking both the color of menstrual blood and the flowing clarity of the mikveh ("Kiddush Levana," in Women Speak to God: The Prayers and Poems of Jewish Women, ed. Marcia Cohn Spiegel and Deborah Lipton Kremsdorf, Woman's Institute for Continuing Jewish Education, 1987). A modern immersion ceremony for brides uses an ancient biblical image in which God is a mikveh: "May the God who is mikveh Yisrael (the mikveh of Israel...be with you now and always" ("A Bridal mikveh Ceremony," by Barbara Rossman Penzener and Amy Zwiback-Levenson, in Diamant, The New Jewish Wedding, p. 157-158).
Mikveh in Contemporary Experience
The reclamation of mikveh both as a traditional ritual and as a site for new ceremonies has necessitated Jewish communal interest in mikvaot. One important new trend is the building of mikvaot by pluralistic and/or liberal communities. The mikveh at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles is one such mikveh. Mayyim Chayyim, a pluralistic mikveh conceived by Anita Diamant and others, is being built in Boston as a place where all kinds of mikveh rituals can be practiced: healing, loss, and decision making rituals as well as traditional uses. Building mikvaot under pluralistic auspices may widen women's and men's options for how and when they use the mikveh.
One of the most exciting recent developments around mikveh has been Janice Rubin's "The mikveh Project," an art installation featuring photographs of women who use the mikveh, accompanied by their stories of ritual bath experiences. The pictures-- some clothed and some nude, all anonymous-- show the incredible diversity of Jewish women as well as the diversity of their ideas about purity, sexuality, spirituality, and tradition. A book containing the photographs and stories of the installation has been published as well. This widely known and hauntingly beautiful artwork shows in careful detail the love, ambivalence, anger, and longing many Jewish women feel toward the ritual bath.
Where will the practice of mikveh go in the future? How will Jews imagine purity and impurity, separation and togetherness? Many questions remain. Is mikveh a ritual that should be offered to adolescent girls as a source of spirituality? How might a couple who is not married but is sexually active relate to the practice of tumah and taharah? In what new and creative ways will men use mikveh? What kind of mikveh practice would two lesbians choose? How will Jewish law develop in this area? The options are varied and colorful. The future of this ancient practice is still unfolding. As Marge Piercy writes in her poem "Kaddish": "Time flows through us like water..." (The Art of Blessing The Day. Middlemarsh, 1999, p. 138).
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