Gathering the Waters: Navigating Ambiguity, Rituals & Transitions
Gathering the Waters: the Emerging Mikveh Movement in Israel

Gathering the Waters: Marking Life Transitions with Ritual Immersion

I'm blogging today from Gathering the Waters, the mikveh conference.

In the second slot of the day, there are six options to choose from, all happening simultaneously! I opted for Marking Life Transitions with Ritual Immersion, which is described this way:

The power of water in times of change, joy and sadness. We will explore the power of the mikveh immersion and the elements—in preparation and process—that are critical to a “successful” experience: the water, the ritual, and you, the Jew. How can these forces combine to create psychological, social and even physical change? Led by Rachel Brodie (watch a brief interview with her about "wide-angle Judaism" here on YouTube) and Dr. Vanessa Ochs.

(Tangentially, I posted about one of Dr. Ochs' books years ago when this blog was still relatively new: More than meets the eye. I'd like to reread that book now; I suspect it might strike me differently than it did then...)

Vanessa Ochs tells us that today we'll be talking about using water to mark moments of joy and moments of sadness. "Many of us think about [these issues] day and night, in our personal lives and communal lives," she notes. The goal of this session is to help us understand this ritual (mikveh immersion) more deeply, and to understand how we can become more adept at transmitting our knowledge of ritual to our students, congregants, family members -- how we can become more attuned to the kinds of work that ritual needs to do, and how we can become better teachers, facilitators, participants in this work.

Ochs invites us to name different kinds of transitions which are marked ritually which are not-so-neat. (Transitions which aren't simple or binary.) People around the room call out suggestions like "retirement," or "saying kaddish" during the year of mourning for a parent. Someone else mentions brit milah. Someone else mentions coming out. Someone else mentions saying the mi shebeirach, the prayer for healing -- when is someone "ill enough" to say the words, and when are they "well enough" for us to stop doing so? And in return, someone else mentions receiving a life-threatening diagnosis. Preparing food for a celebratory moment: how does that act provide joy, or not, and what happens when the food is all gone? These are all ritual moments which have the capacity to be a bit ragged, a bit blurred.

In the case of these transition rituals, is part of their purpose to bring us to God, or to please God, or to act in God-like ways? Ochs asks. "Maybe we shy away from that theological question, but what if we enter into this ritual, and the communal work has been done, but what if we didn't feel that we recognized God along the way?"

"Mikveh isn't the answer to everything," says Rachel Brodie. "Mikveh isn't the answer to all of the things which have been mentioned. But we'd like to think about, if you're using a medium like water, what's the symbolism, and does it match with your intention for the transition that you're marking?"

"Mikvah is not for the time when you're raw," Brodie adds. "I think of it as being like a physical wound -- that's not the time to dip in the water!" The question of whether mikveh is a good match is one that's worth asking -- maybe especially now that we're so excited about reclaiming the mitzvah. "I've watched it become the shehecheyanu of mitzvot -- people don't know what to do, so they think, 'how about mikveh?' ...Ritual is a vehicle, it's a structure." Mikveh is about being in the transitional space, not necessarily about getting to the other side.

"When one is contemplating a ritual, a new one or traditional one, when one is resculpting a ritual, there are particular elements that one concentrates upon," says Ochs. In the case of a wedding, for instance, there are actions and objects we all expect: chuppah, ketubah, sheva brachot, circling, breaking the glass, etc. "The mikveh is one of those [actions] -- it's one of the little black dresses; we have good feelings, we have complicated feelings, but it's there. It might connect us horizontally, it might connect us virtually, but it's part of our patrimony or matrimony. It's not a Christmas tree. These are rituals, actions, objects, that say 'us.'"

Ochs is drawing now from one of our handouts for this session, a page of quotations from Ochs' own Inventing Jewish Ritual, under the heading of "What does a Jewish ritual toolbox hold?" Her answers include texts, rituals and actions of objects, and enduring Jewish understandings -- all of the stuff I've just been writing about. (The other handout, titled "About Lifecycle Rituals...", has the url at the bottom of each page.) Mikveh is an inherited Jewish action / ritual which feels central, "but we don't always know its full capacity for symbolic evocation," Ochs says.

Brodie steps in to help us think about the powers of water. Hand-washing, she mentions, is a water ritual which we can use when we don't have access to mikvah. She asks us to brainstorm about the substance of water, about usage of water, and about water as a symbol. Water is cleansing, someone offers; it's life-sustaining; it's shape-shifting; associations with life and death; our bodies are made up of water. We associate water with purity -- "whatever that means," Brodie quips. Water is a rabbinic symbol of Torah, because it nourishes and sustains us. Water makes us think of rebirth, renewal. Wells -- there are a lot of wells in the Bible! "That's significant, not only Biblically but in terms of what we're doing here; water suggests a place where we gather."

Water connects us with the garden of Eden, which had four rivers running through it. Water connects us with the womb. Water can be a boundary: something we have to cross. (That takes us to the Hebrew word ivri, "Hebrew," which can be translated as "boundary-crosser.") Water is essential for life; Biblically water is often connected with miracles. "Where you find God, you find water," Brodie notes. "Water is an intimate partner of God, in creation -- at the beginning of the world, it's a key component." Water can also be destructive -- think Flood, tsunami, chaotic waters. In the beginning, God divided the waters into the upper waters and the lower waters. "Water takes you back to yourself," someone says. Jeff Klepper brings up the notion of "wade in the waters," of "God's gonna trouble the waters" -- end of the world ideas, rebirth ideas. Water, Brodie says ultimately, is paradox; it can represent all kinds of things. It can represent permanence (it's always here), impermanence (it comes and goes), and change. Water can connect us to fear; to intimacy; to vulnerability; to joy. There's a great emotional range.

And all of these can connect us with mikveh.

Take the hypothetical case of designing a ritual for retirement. We could use the list we've just branstormed -- transformation, change, rebirth -- and decide that we could use the new Mayyim Hayyim book of mikvah ceremonies to design a ritual for retirement which uses mikveh. (Here's a list of some sample ceremonies; the book is a terrific, and substantial, resource. I can't seem to find it available for sale online, though if I find a link I'll edit this post to say so.) Ochs adds:

There might not be a retirement mikveh ritual, but retirement is a phase of life which is much more complex than we thought it used to be, and as Jews, we're thinking of retirement in new, specific, and different kinds of ways. And so when we think about how immersion creates new possibilities for experiencing, cushioning anxiety, connecting to God, one of the places we have to begin with is, how is retirement different? How is it changing? What are our issues as clergy or therapists or community people or friends or children of retiring parents?

Mikvah was used, clasically, as a way to prepare one to be ready to do things, says Brodie. For her, that's an important consideration in figuring out whether mikvah is the right ritual choice for a given moment in our lives. "For me, the critical piece of mikvah is that it's not the waters that purify, it's your intention." The mikvah won't heal you; it won't enable you to feel less grief. But another participant in the room disagrees -- for her, a moment of emotional rawness is exactly when immersing can offer comfort and respite. "For me, it's all about the intention," Brodie explains. "And the mikveh isn't magic." There are people who think that mikveh can heal, "and for them, that's great!" Ochs adds that we don't pray for rain when it's not the rainy season; "rituals that become venerated are rituals that can become successful."

This is a really interesting point for me, and I can see both sides of the argument on the healing-from-trauma front. On the one hand, immersion in water isn't necessarily going to give someone the healing that s/he needs. On the other hand, it might. So much might depend on how the experience unfolds, and what the person needs, and what that person believes about the experience they're entering into. A mikvah isn't magic; but I can imagine sinking into the waters and feeling that in some inchoate way my emotional and spiritual circumstance had been changed.

"There are water rituals which serve other functions," Brodie says. "Think of tashlich!" (The ritual of casting bread into living waters, as a metaphor for casting-away our misdeeds and our sins after Rosh Hashanah.) She herself is an intellectual Jew, she's a Jew in her head -- and yet mikveh is effective for her because it's physical and not intellectual. You can intellectualize beforehand, or afterwards, but when you're in it, you're in it. It's an opportunity to slow down, to really be in the moment. "And when it doesn't work, it's not the ritual that isn't working, it's me!"

Ochs invites us to imagine writing an email to a friend who is planning to use the mikveh to mark retirement: what sage advice would we now offer, based on our conversations here this morning? As I reflect on that, I think I would probably invite the friend to reflect beforehand about what retirement means to her/him (perhaps to journal, or to sit face-to-face with a loved one and speak about it.) Then I would suggest that s/he try to step into the waters with no expectations, just an opportunity to be in the moment, and see what arises. And then maybe it would make sense to be face-to-face with a loving friend again, either to sit in silence, or to sing, or to talk about the experience, whatever feels most appropriate.

After a few moments of silence as we each mentally engage in this exercise, a handful of people offer their thoughts and reflections aloud. It's lovely to hear the different ways that we're all approaching this "assignment" -- some offer concrete suggestions, other offer emotional or spiritual suggestions. One of the pieces I liked best was "Ask yourself: what are you asking God for, in this moment of transition? And what do you need to do in order to be God's partner in this?" Lovely.