Gathering the Waters: Opening Session
Gathering the Waters: Marking Life Transitions with Ritual Immersion

Gathering the Waters: Navigating Ambiguity, Rituals & Transitions

I'm blogging today from Gathering the Waters, the mikvah conference at Mayyim Hayyim.

Today's first session (following shacharit, which alas, I had to miss, because I was taking Drew to daycare for the day) is Navigating Ambiguity: Mikveh and transitions. This session will "explore the concept of liminality and the way rituals help ease the confusion that comes with change. We will examine how and why water works to transform sexuality, Jewish identity, and even the 'identity' of inanimate objects." (Does that last bit sound far-out? It's because mikva'ot have traditionally been used to make things like glass dishes kosher.) The speaker is Dr. Erica Brown, scholar in residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning, whose most recent book is Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism.

Aliza Klein welcomes us this morning and talks about who we are as an ad hoc community: 270+ people from around the world, ranging in age from 20s to 70s, ranging in observance / affiliation from Renewal to Orthodox to non-Jewish. She offers a little Hebrew word game: the word "mayyim" (water) can be understood as mah + im, "what" plus "if." Water offers us a chance to explore the what-ifs, to flow fluidly into new possibility. We're here to share the possibilities of mah + im.

It's fascinating, Erica Brown says, that we're having a public conversation about a very private ritual. There is no safer space than mikveh. During mikveh immersion are in a private, renewing space; in absolute privacy; and in the mystical readings of the experience, we're re-entering the womb! (I blogged about a Hasidic texton that subject a while back: returning to the divine womb.) And yet we're talking about it in public today.

Liminal time is in-between time; "liminality is the feeling of being in-between." We collectively brainstorm examples of this: mezuzot, which are between public space and private space, on a threshold, in a doorway which is both exit and entrance. "Right at that point, Judaism says: put a marker there. A reminder of who we are. Every time you go in and out, there's a certain thoughtfulness about who you are." Havdalah, which is in-between Shabbat and week, a ritual which separates these two time periods but also cushions us in getting to the next point. Applying to college but not yet being accepted -- being in some way done with high school, but not yet into the new thing, the new place. "Transition on a lot of levels!" For parents as well as for children. Anxiety and excitement.

"What we've identified are space, time, and milestone events which are actually transitions," Brown says, and she notes that all religions are intrigued by transitional times, which produce anxieties; we place rituals in those moments for that reason. We brainstorm some of the anxieties involved in transitional moments: bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, and so on. Within an ancient framework, these are often sexualized in some way -- for instance, the classical determination for becoming bar mitzvah has to do with having three pubic hairs! And this is one of the reasons that we have so many rituals around these moments of entering puberty and entering into marriage.

Brown also talks about death. "We [Jews] do death well," she quips, and talks about all of our familiar rituals around death (from organizing the food, to gathering the community, to the stages of grief as they unfold.) By the end of the shiva week, a mourner told her that instead of the grief she expected to feel, she felt instead that she had been given the gift of hearing about new parts of her father all week long, and that it felt like a holy time. We have mitzvot for the seven days after, for the thirty days after, for the year after. "There's an orderliness to the way that we express happiness and the way we express grief." We experience these transitions in a powerful way anyway; the rituals force us to pay attention to the subtle gradations of how our experience changes over time. The rituals allow us to experience what we experience within certain structures.

That's our introduction to liminal time: liminality is the cushion in transitional times, and every ritual can be understood in this framework. "What is prayer? What is kiddush? What are all of these different ceremonies which the mikvah comes in handy to mark -- what's liminal about them? What is the anxiety that's produced, which the ritual is trying to ease us into or ease us out of?" These are the questions at hand.

We're invited to take a few moments in silence to answer questions on the discussion handout: why are rituals important, name a ritual that helps you nagivate a transition, what anxieties surface in transitions which benefit from the cushion of ritual, and what role does kavanah, intent, play in ritual behaviors. (I could blog about these four questions for weeks!) In a nutshell, I would say that rituals are important (to me) because they not only mark but also enact transformation; when I think of transitions in my daily life now, I think of the bedtime rituals I do with Drew, which help both of us through the experience of putting him in his crib at night; that anxieties often have to do with uncertainty, and ritual helps me live with my uncertainties secure in the knowledge that I'm part of something greater than myself; and that intention is important to me, and sometimes I also find that even if I go into a ritual without feeling that kavanah, the kavanah arises as I do the ritual thing itself.

We break into small groups, around our tables, and talk about our answers to these questions, and then Brown leads us in a whole-room discussion of the rituals which are important to us, from lighting yarzheit candles or Shabbat candles to blowing shofar every day during the month of Elul, or the bedtime rituals I do with Drew. Rituals connect us not only horizontally (to friends and family members who are celebrating with us, wherever we are) but also vertically (to people who came before us and people who will come after us.) Ritual observances like mikvah are connective.

And then we move into a larger framework conversation about the limits of ritual. What, Brown asks, is the importance of kavanah? One person offers that kavanah allows us to feel present in the moment. Brown herself offers, "bringing God into the pause." Someone else offers, if you wait until you have perfect kavanah you'll never do the thing; you have to do it, and you'll grow into it. As a writer, Brown quips, if you wait until you have "inspiration," you'll never have a book! (Amen to that.) She reads us this quote:

But how, the reader might ask, can one perform ritual without perfect and pure intent? Is it not a sham? The answer might be, 'Once more, with feeling.' Even so, should ritual or rite happen to be devoid of inner spirit at any given moment, it does not mean that it is devoid of meaning. Sometimes, in ritual, we simply feel part of the community, and that is enough. Sometimes, ritual serves to generate a sense of self, and that is enough. Sometimes it strengthens the family unit, and that is enough. And sometimes, it connects us to the Divine, and that is enough. -- Blu Greenberg, How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household

Imagine, she adds, if we decided we were only going to pray when we were really deep in that moment of inspiration! Sometimes prayer connects us with God; and sometimes it just connects us with our kids, or with community, and that can be enough. Relationships are created and enlivened through the performances of mitzvot, and that matters. There's a reciprocity of meaning; sometimes we bring something to a mitzvah, and other times the mitzvah brings things to us in a way we didn't expect.

The Hebrew word "hineni" means "I am here." Brown understands it as "I am fully present" -- which is a challenging statement to make in this age of technology. What does it mean to be fully present in this moment? To be here and nowhere else? Not multitasking, but fully in this moment? We often don't prepare ourselves. Can we say, when I parent, I'm fully here; as a spouse, I'm fully here; in my work life, I'm fully here? Mitzvot may pass us by because we're not able to really say hineni, I'm fully here. Brown continues:

If an experience is meaningless and we know the tradition is meaningful, then it's our job to reinvent the ritual and make it relevant to people. Those of us who are educators, parents...trying to create sacred communities -- we need to take that responsibility seriously and say, is anything I'm doing in my Jewish life truly relevant? does it solve problems, speak to inner anxieties or great desires? If it doesn't, it's not because the traidtion is lacking but because we're lacking in what we're bringing to the tradition. We need to bring the tradition something which it had heretofore not had.

After reading us a quote from Shalom Spiegel about how ritual can become a stumbling block in religion, she asks us how that's possible, and someone in the room offers the Buddhist saying, "The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon." Brown's formulation is, "there's a difference between praying and reading prayers." If the act itself becomes the end-goal, that can be a problem.

Our rediscovery of the mitzvah of mikvah is both exciting and a little bit destabilizing. Brown talks about Jewish law teachings which relate to a ma'aseh, an action. If I'm sitting in a sukkah, and I don't have the right intention of joy, have I fulfilled the mitzvah? Yes. If I light candles for Shabbat and I'm not thinking about what I'm doing, have I fulfilled the mitzvah? Yes. But there are two mitzvot wherein if I have not had the kavanah, I haven't actually done the thing. One of them is prayer. (Specifically some prayers: the shema, for instance.) Many rabbinic commentaries talk about why this is the case. If I haven't thought about it, I haven't done it: why is that? One audience member offers that word kavanah comes from the root meaning "to direct." You have to direct yourself. In prayer, if prayer is about thought, then if I haven't been thinking, I haven't done it.

But mikveh, unlike prayer, has a physical component! And yet Rambam says, if you immerse without kavanah it doesn't count. Which is fascinating! The mikvah immersion is an experience unlike most others in Judaism, wherein if I'm not really there, if I haven't had that hineni moment, I have to do it again. One audience member suggests that maybe it's because we immerse in water for other reasons: when we swim, when we take a bath, e.g., so immersing in water might by itself not be sufficient to give us the spiritual experience we need. (This is a terrific conversation; yesterday my sister asked me, "how is mikveh immersion different from just getting in a pool of water?" and now I have deep traditional answers for her on this front!) We spend a while in hevruta pairs doing some text study of texts from Maimonides, looking at a text about washing hands before eating, about how ritual immersion must involve intention or it doesn't "count," and about teshuvah, turning-toward-God.

Ever had a hard day and come home saying, "I need to take a shower?" Brown asks. That's very much like how this works: it's not that you're actually washing away the hard day, but rather washing away the experience of feeling mired in whatever was hard to deal with. Something about being in water coalesces our feeings and thoughts and allows us to relax into a different mode of feeling. "Maimonides is saying, don't think for a moment that when you enter the mikvah you're removing yourself from dirt," Brown says. "That's not the transformation that's taking place." And you have to believe that the mikveh has transformative powers.

She lifts a clear plastic plate and invites us to remember that in the traditional understanding, glass plates need to be "toiveled," immersed in mikvah. "Is it possible that when I put it in the mikvah, its status changes completely? It looks like the same plate! What I'm saying is, if eating is a sanctified act, I want to make sure that what I eat from is somehow sanctified." And this act is fundamental to conversion, too: when a persom immerses in the mikvah, we say, "Welcome to Judaism!" It's not that the person looks any different; but the mikvah had liminal possibility, and it has transformed the person's status. That's the kind of kavanah that Maimonides mandates. He's saying that every time we immerse, we have the capacity to transform ourselves and become someone else.

And that's what takes us to our final text, Rambam on teshuvah / repentance (Sefer Mada, Teshuva 7:6.) The notion that people can fundamentally change is central to Judaism, Brown says, and leads us through the text: "Teshuvah is great for it draws a man close to the Shechinah...Teshuvah brings near those who were far removed." There are acts we do which fundamentally change relationships -- like a needed apology. "I'm sorry." "I love you." Those words can change things. (And hearing this, I find myself thinking too about the words which will be spoken when I receive smicha...)

I don't want to overdramatize mikvah. I'm not saying that every time I go, I feel that everything's changed. But Maimonides is saying that when you go to the mikvah, everything changes, even though there's no physical change! We have the capacity to do that, every time that we go. There's the possibility that I say to myself, I am entering, immersing, and transforming the self. If it can work for a plate, it can work for me. The mikveh is the body of water in which you immerse, and you transform.

And sometimes we may fail -- we may not have the kavanah. The ritual may not work. But think of the boy who says to the rabbi in synagogue, "I'm bored." The moment he says that, everything changes, because he's entering in to the possibility of being able to change his own boredom. "I want to create the ritual framework in which to look at this mitzvah," Brown says, thinking about kavanah and transition, navigating ambiguous waters. "Just as there are speech acts which are short and brief and change everything, mikveh has that possibility. I'm going to immerse myself into an alternate universe, and come out a changed person. It's a remarkable gift."