Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reclaiming Mikvah as a Jewish Spiritual Practice

A couple of weeks ago, my synagogue performed the ribbon-cutting ceremony for its mikvah (מקוה), which is a bath used for purposes of ritual immersion. With the recent allegations against former Rabbi Barry Freundel of him videotaping naked, female converts entering into the mikvah, it brought attention to a painful reality for many in the Jewish community, particularly women: Instead of being a sacred space for purity, it was a place where one felt violated. Although the Freundel scandal has brought the issue to light, there has been something more ongoing than rabbinic abuse of power, and that is that many Jews have lost connection with what mikvah does mean or can mean in their lives.

A question that might be prudent to ask is when one is required to use mikvah. The most common usage of the mikvah is for women who just finished their period of niddah (see Leviticus 15:19, 15:24, 18:19, 20:18) due to their menstrual cycle, and want to resume marital relations. Immersion of kitchen utensils purchased by non-Jews (a process known as tevilat keilim) also require immersion in the mikveh. Conversion to Judaism for both genders is another common use of mikvah. There are also other mandatory uses, such as a bride before she gets married or a woman after childbirth. Other than that, any other use (e.g., a groom before the wedding, a man before Yom Kippur) are customary in nature.

Before going into greater meaning behind the ritual, I would like to point out the double standard between genders with regards to mikvah. Under Jewish law, a man who has ejaculated and has not yet completed an immersion in the mikvah is considered to in a state of ritual impurity called בעל קרי, which means amongst other things, he cannot study Torah until the immersion (Talmud, Berachot 22a; Leviticus 15:16). However, there was a point where these laws became inoperable for men, and men were no longer required to go to mikvah for reasons of ritual impurity. The biblical source for ritual impurity shows up in the same chapter for both genders, yet only men are provided a free pass. Maybe the rabbis realized that men ejaculating, even when involuntary, was a more frequent biological process than women menstruating. It sends the unfortunate message, even if unintentionally, that women are "gross" or "impure" while men are "good to go." If you go to the mikvah because you take the concept of ritual purity seriously, all the more power to you. However, not everyone is going to have that view. For non-Orthodox Jews or more religiously liberal Jews, I can at least understand why going to the mikvah based on the reason of "my body's ritual status is unacceptable" is unpalatable. The question is how can one go to the mikvah and not feel dirty or guilty about a natural process of the human body that G-d Himself created. How can we, regardless of gender, feel a relevant, spiritual connection to mikvah?

Think about the importance of water. Water is a source of life. Humans are over 70 percent water. Without water, we would not exist. The Tanach picks up on this symbolism. Water is used to transform (Leviticus 14:7). Water is a source of survival (Genesis 21:14-19). We see water's usage in the Creation narrative, the story of Noah and the flood (at which point, the planet is effectively one giant mikvah), the splitting of the Sea of Reeds in Exodus, Moses in the basket, the story of Jonah and the whale, the list goes on.

When we look at the uses of water in the Bible, they have a commonality: they commemorate a new beginning. Water is so transformative that we feel anew. Much like water, the concept of renewal is also a prevalent motif in Jewish thought. Every year, we start anew with the High Holy Days. Every month, we have Rosh Chodesh. Shabbat comes around every week. On a daily basis, there are practices such as Modeh Ani. Judaism provides constant and ample opportunity to restart our lives because we are redeemable and capable of improving upon ourselves.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was correct in saying that the mikvah is symbolic of a new birth, which would help explain why immersing into mikvah with intent (קונה) is a requirement in Jewish law. Without it, it is as if one had not immersed at all. This is why I think that there should not be a lot of mandatory requirements for mikvah. The reason why I think there should be more personal discretion as to when one decides to go to mikvah is because we know ourselves best when it comes to determining when we have reached a transition point in life that necessitates a ritual to commemorate that transformation. Many of us would think that going to the mikvah daily or right before Shabbat is a custom that is too much. At least for me, I know if I went to the mikvah too frequently, it would lose its קונה. Perhaps going right before Yom Kippur only is more appropriate (see Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer, Chapter 20; Mishnah Berurah 606:21). Or how about when you move to a new city and are starting a new life? That seems like a good time to use the mikvah. However you decide to use mikvah, may it commemorate the beginning of a new and better you.

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