Thursday, September 6, 2007

Visiting the Mikveh - 13 Things I Loved About It

The Mikveh is a Jewish institution shrouded in mystery and confusion for modern Reform Jews (and probably some Conservative ones too!). The mikveh is defined as a ritual bath, used not for purposes of physical cleanliness, but rather ritual purity or spiritual cleanliness. According to the Wikipedia entry, (which is actually pretty accurate - thumbs up!)

Its main uses nowadays are:
by Jewish women to achieve ritual purity after menstruation or childbirth
by Jewish men to achieve ritual purity
as part of a traditional procedure for conversion to Judaism
for utensils used for food

It's the first one that makes many modern women crazy, the second that less people know about, the third that is the most well-known in most Reform circles, and the last that is also less well known. But what is not accurate in the Wikipedia entry is the brief entry about Reform Jews and their lack of use of the Mikveh for anything other than conversion. Okay, maybe this is somewhat accurate, but we are working on it! Organizations like Mayyim Hayyim in Boston are making mikveh more accessible to modern Jews.

Okay, so all that said...where am I going?

It is customary, in that second idea up there, that "men" go to the mikveh to achieve ritual purity. These days, anything the men can do, so can the women! Often, people (okay, men) will go to the mikveh before Shabbat or holidays in order to fully prepare themselves physically/spiritually. I've never used the mikveh in this way (I've only been once before, right before my wedding). This year, I decided to go to the mikveh to prepare myself for the High Holy Days. As a rabbi, I spend these weeks before the holidays stressing and preparing and basically running around like crazy and I rarely have the time to prepare myself in any meaningful way. (In an earlier post, I referred to teshuvah, which is the Hebrew word for repentance...the "work" of the High Holy Days)

So the mikveh it was for me...and to describe it, here is a list of
13 things I loved about it...

1. The quiet. It was in the evening, and it was dark. It's traditional to go at night to show humility and to increase privacy (of course, blogging about it doesn't make it too private, does it). It was quiet. I had a few moments before all to myself to breathe and just be.
2. The reminder. The mikveh lady (a technical term) reminded me of the special nature of this moment. She knows that I come all the time to the mikveh with conversion candidates but she reminded me to take my time, to pay attention to each item of clothing or jewelry or act like brushing my hair, to realize that this was more than just a shower and then a dip in the pool, and more than just getting ready for bed.
3. The words. I hummed the tune for Hashi-veynu, one of my favorite penitential prayers that we sing at our Selichot service this coming Saturday night. To me, that tune really "kicks off" the holidays. Hashiveinu Adonai elecha v'nashuva, chadeish yameinu k'kedem...Help us to return to You, O God, then truly shall we return. Renew our days as in the past. I felt like this helped to remind me why I was doing this.
4. The washing. As I washed my eyelashes (the purpose of the pre-immersion cleansing is to remove all "barriers" to the living waters of the mikveh, so you wash carefully all your crevices -- like blowing your nose and cleaning your navel -- and you wash the parts you might not normally wash, like eyelashes, as well as comb out all snarls and tangles in your hair so the water can fully reach every part of you.)...I thought of how unusual this was, and how much more special it made it, and different from other shower/washing/hygiene experiences.
5. The privacy. Once I was prepared for entry into the mikveh, the mikveh lady was so careful to ensure my privacy. She is required to "guard" my immersions and to help make sure I've gotten the stray hairs from my skin, but she takes such care to be modest and private about the experience. She takes the towel and holds it up in front of her face until I'm fully immersed in the water.
6. The water...ah, the water. It's warm and wonderful, embracing and uplifting. As I stepped into the middle of the small pool, I realized how deep it actually is -- just about my height! The water didn't weight me down, though, in fact, it buoyed me up, encouraging me to float. When I was prepared, I took my first immersion, deep under the water, spreading my fingers and toes to get water into every nook and cranny of my being...these living waters holding me up and filling me up with their powers of personal purification.
7. The second immersion...this is the one where the mikveh lady takes a step outside the room following the immersion to offer the dipper a few moments of personal prayer or meditation. It is a mitzvah to ask for something for yourself, and as I floated in the water, feeling how safe and warm and comfortable I was, I was reminded of the title of a book by Rabbi David Wolpe - "Floating Takes Faith" -- and I knew that to be there in that moment, I was truly renewing my own faith.
8. The third immersion. To say shehecheyanu, the blessing for a first time, it was as though I were new again, reborn so to speak. If you think about it, the last time we were so surrounded by water like this was in the womb...this is a re-creation of that living water, a chance to be spiritually re-born for this new year.
9. The exit. As I stood in front of the mikveh lady, with my back to her, she wrapped the towel around me. She is a very traditional lady, and she avoids personal touch throughout the whole process. But as she wrapped the towel around my shoulders, she gave my shoulders a little squeeze. It felt like a whole hug, as though she were giving me her most heartfelt wishes and prayers. I really believe that she feels that what she does is truly one of the most precious jobs in the world -- and she acts like it. This squeeze was, I feel, her way of telling me that. And I am grateful.
10. Getting dressed. I put on all my clothes, my jewelry, my contact lenses...and then I examined myself in the mirror. Am I different now? Somehow more pure and more ready for the holidays? I decided the answer is yes. I did look different. I looked relaxed and happy and ready to face the holidays with a whole heart.
11. The drive home. To know that I was going back out into a world unchanged, but I, I was different somehow. I felt more calm, more prepared. With Rosh HaShanah only one week away, I could face the moment with far more ease than I had felt all day long. I felt refreshed, washed clean.
12. The work. I'm not done with the work of teshuvah, repentance, just because I washed clean in the mikveh. Jewish life doesn't work that way! I still have the obligation to ask forgiveness and work on my own spiritual and personal faults and shortcomings. But somehow I feel that it will be made easier or more do-able for me after this visit to the mikveh.
13. The blogging. I was so excited for the opportunity to share this experience with those who read this blog as well as my other one,, so I could share a different and new way of welcoming the Jewish New Year. As a rabbi, my preparations are often different than other Jews. This was a great moment for me to have a personal opportunity to expand my own spiritual practice.

See more Thursday Thirteen posts here...
Crossposted on


Qtpies7 said...

This was very interesting to me.
I was not aware that women could be rabbis in the jewish faith. Does it mean the same as a preacher, or is it something different?
Is this something that was always allowed, or is it a newer practice?

Unknown said...

I've always wanted to visit the Mikvah and planned to do so before my wedding day. When I fell in love with a Lutheran man, I didn't feel I had the right (my own personal issue, not one anyone ever imposed on me) to join my sisters in the waters of the Mikvah.

Now, as a widow, I plan to go at some point. It's one of the things I promise myself I will do before I die. Perhaps my b'shert is out there and I will be blessed with falling in love a second time. If so, I will be sure to purify myself in those sacred waters.

Phyllis Sommer said...

women have been rabbis in the Reform movement since 1972. Historically, women were not rabbis but there are stories of learned women going all the way back to the days of the Talmud (Rabbi Meir's wife Beruriah is the most famous example). The word rabbi means "teacher" and I serve as a preacher, teacher, prayer leader, and much more in my congregation.

Robin said...

I've never been to the mikvah (got married in the US, not in Israel). Thank you for sharing your experience.

bella said...

This was quite powerful.
Ritual brings us to that timeless place.
I loved that something so commonplace and everyday, that of bathing and water, is also set a part and held as sacred, in its intention and ceremony.
Thank-you for sharing.

Marci said...

I am so inspired by this post. May I keep it around, just in case? You are an incredible rabbi, and I learn so much from you. I am honored to be your colleague and friend.

Thank you for all of your kind support and prayers for my father. I will keep you up to date. Shabbat Shalom!

Qtpies7 said...

That is really interesting. I assumed that since Biblically women were not to be teachers/preachers over men, that it would have been a Jewish tradition/law also. It is an issue I struggle with as a Christian. I can't seem to find peace with women preaching and teaching over men Biblically, but I also know that when men do not stand up and lead a woman will have to step in, and many times have more wisdom and a closer walk with God, not to mention less pride.
So, do women rabbies have the authority to preach to men? And how does this work scripturally?
And thank you for answering my question and taking it as a real inquiry and not a critisism.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such an interesting TT. A friend of mine converted to Judaism in order to marry a jewish girl and keep her family happy, and he told me he took, in his words, "a ceremonial bath". I assume this is what he meant. I enjoyed learning about it here.

Anonymous said...

Loved this post!! I love going to mikvah and would go monthly if I could sell the idea to PC who is SO not on board!! So I go before the HHD every year and love it, love it, love it!