Mikveh, In Their Own Image


As growing numbers of non-Orthodox Jews flock to the mikveh — a trend that has spread over the last decade — an inevitable clash between the traditional and the modern is beginning to emerge, with progressive Jews seeking to recast an ancient ritual in their own image.

The current interest in mikveh was evidenced by the more than 200 people, men and women, from across the Jewish spectrum, who attended the conference “Reclaiming Mikveh: Pouring Ancient Waters into a Contemporary Vessel,” held last month in the Boston suburb of Newton, Mass.

Convened by the Outreach Training Institute of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Northeast Council, it was co-sponsored by 33 local and national organizations of the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, along with Boston’s Jewish Federation and the local new community mikveh, Mayyim Chayyim.

The breadth of interest would have seemed unimaginable even 10 years ago, when modern Jews seemed to associate immersion in the ritual bath known as mikveh with Christian baptisms or with something oppressive to women.

“More people are interested because it’s an opportunity to have an experience of more meaning,” said Rabbi Norman Cohen, provost of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a speaker at the conference. “It takes us beyond the mere physicality of our lives,” he said in an interview.

But now, with use of mikveh among the non-Orthodox seemingly here to stay, the debate, particularly within the Conservative movement, is taking on a sharper edge as people consider such questions as: Are traditional concepts of purity and impurity relevant for non-Orthodox Jews today?

Is a new, more contemporary vernacular — one which hews more closely to modern and feminist sensibilities — needed to discuss the issues surrounding mikveh?

How far from the tradition can people veer before a ritual is no longer anchored in authentic Jewish practice? For instance, should mikveh — traditionally used by men and women before marriage and by women as a way of cleansing themselves before resuming sexual relations with their husbands after their menstrual cycles — be used, as is the trend in some circles, to signify everything from a recovery from illness, the end of a period of mourning for a loved one, the completion of a divorce, the start of a new job or the celebration of a bar or bat mitzvah? And should liberal Jews be bound by the approximately 12-day interval a woman traditionally waits after her monthly period arrives before she immerses and can have intercourse with her husband?

Wrestling with these issues, and adapting them to contemporary sensibilities has become American Jewish custom, said author and Mayyim Hayyim co-founder Anita Diament in her speech at the conference.

While Orthodox experts say the Family Purity laws, as they are known, enhance a marriage — one oft-repeated phrase claims that the monthly post-mikveh reunion between husband and wife amounts to a honeymoon every month — at the end of the day, Orthodox Jews go to the mikveh because it is a commandment.

But that isn’t enough to persuade many liberal Jews to take on the observance. “In the early 1900s the mikvehs weren’t so clean or fancy. When I teach and ask people the first word that comes to mind when they hear mikveh, they used to say ‘dirty,’” said Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz, a Conservative scholar and educator at work on a book on mikveh, who spoke at the mikveh conference. “Now people say ‘Orthodox.’ The challenge is to show its relevance for liberal people.”

The idea that a woman is somehow niddah (spiritually or ritually impure) simply because her body is functioning normally during menstruation is rejected by many.

Lively debate about how to work through these issues was the heart of the mikveh conference.

For modern Jews, “there are unarticulated tensions around niddah,” said Lori Hope Lefkovitz, professor of Gender and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and director of “Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies” there.

In the Bible the term niddah is associated with death and leprosy, a disease that makes those afflicted look like they are decomposing, as well as with genital emissions from both genders and with a status prohibiting one who is tumah (ritually impure) from being in the Temple. But since the Temple does not presently exist, argue some, those concepts are no longer relevant. And some at the conference advocated that changes be semantic.

“Tumah no longer has practical application in Jewish law,” said Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, the director of “Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning” in Toronto. Instead of using the term, “we can say ‘ready’ or ‘not ready’” for sexual relations, she said.

Cookie Rosenbaum, an Orthodox mikveh educator and guide at the ritual bath in Sharon, Mass., and a consultant to Mayyim Hayyim, said that she explains the days after a woman’s period ends, when she has to wait before going to the mikveh, as “spotless” days, not “clean days, which has a lot of connotations.”

“The words can be such a roadblock to people, and it’s not a halakhic (Jewish legal) matter, so it’s worth just using different words,” said Rabbi Berkowitz. “You have to see what appeals to people and go with that.”

“Tumah and tahara (pure) present us with a dilemma,” said Rachel Adler, professor of Modern Jewish Thought at the Hebrew Union College rabbinical school in Los Angeles.

But “do we want to completely sanitize the meaning of tumah? Tumah is the yuck, the ick, the death. That from which we recoil,” she said. “Overcoming tumah is overcoming death.”

An even more fundamental discussion about mikveh observance — about the length of time a woman should wait after menstruating before immersing — is underway at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor of Talmud and Jewish Law, has for some 20 years been teaching his students that married couples should abstain for seven days — based on the biblically-mandated length of time — and that then both should immerse (separately).

He looked into it originally, he admits, to find a way to persuade Conservative Jews to take on the observance. When in rabbinical school, in the 1960s, the number of married students observing it was “exceptionally small,” he said in an interview. That has increased dramatically in recent years, and “I am very pleased with that,” he said.

He bases his position on the fact that the additional waiting period is custom, not law, he said. (Rabbi Roth was not involved with the mikveh conference).

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is also taking up the issue, addressing mikveh for the first time in anyone’s memory. Three rabbis have introduced opinions. Rabbi Susan Grossman, a member of the Law Committee, authored one of the papers, advocating a position similar to Rabbi Roth’s, but she also recommends changing the language around family purity. (She was also not involved with the conference).

“Literally the word ‘niddah’ means ‘flow,’” she said. “Unfortunately over the years from (the prophet) Ezekiel on, the word has had a negative connotation meaning ‘debased,’ meaning ‘evil,’ ‘something that is dangerous to the body of Israel.’ That’s why I suggest we use more neutral language.”

Rabbi Grossman recommends changing the terminology from “Taharat HaMishpachah,” or family purity, to “Kedushat haMishapacha (Holiness of the family),” or “Kedushat Yetzirah (Sanctity of Creation).”

“How do we embrace the beauty of this tradition and redeem it from the extra strictures, the meshagas (craziness), that developed over the centuries over categorizing women as ‘other’ and really physically pushing them away from the community?” she said.

“We need this because it is the original intent of Torah. Looking at the rabbinical record we do have precedent for making these changes, which is what makes it kosher.” Religious traditionalists, however, eschew tampering.

Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski, director of Chabad of the Upper East Side, which recently opened a new mikveh, made clear that he is uncomfortable with the idea of new rituals.

“Truth doesn’t need any embellishment. Ritual is saying ‘what can God do for me, for my spiritual growth?’ But the essence of a mitzvah is because it is what Hashem asked me to do. It’s an end in itself,” he said. On the other hand, “if someone comes to the mikveh, we don’t interrogate her” about why she’s there.

And as for a woman resuming a sexual relationship with her husband after just a week, rather than the rabbinically-mandated minimum of 12 days, he said, “There’s a lot of depth to every mitzvah, and we wouldn’t touch one iota of either” the Biblical or rabbinic aspect of Jewish law. “The Torah is a closed book,” he said.

While the number of new mikvehs is indisputably growing, outside of a few vibrant centers, is observance really increasing? Or is it a fad, a trend like Kabbalah-lite?

Even outgoing JTS Chancellor Rabbi Ismar Schorsch – no fan of pop spirituality – said in an interview that the interest in and wrangling with mikveh “is growing and does represent something deeper.

“I welcome it, certainly,” he said. “The embrace of the mikveh by Conservative synagogues is simply one facet of a much larger trend to re-embrace tradition,” he said. Even when it comes to using mikveh for new rituals, Rabbi Schorsch said that it was an acceptable development. “There’s nothing to preclude that use,” he said.

Rabbi Berkowitz authored another of the religious responsum before the Conservative movement’s law committee.

In the end, to fully appreciate the power of mikveh immersion, which is, of course, a physical rather than intellectual experience, she said, “sometimes you just have to jump in and try it.”