Gathering the Waters: Touring Mayyim Hayyim
Gathering the Waters: Navigating Ambiguity, Rituals & Transitions

Gathering the Waters: Opening Session


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

The opening session is Why Now? Understanding the resurgence of mikveh in the context of contemporary American Jewish history, featuring American Jewish historian Professor Jonathan Sarna (author of American Judaism: A History) in conversation with writer/Mayyim Hayyim founder Anita Diamant and Mayyim Hayyim Executive Director Aliza Kline (author of the article Beneath The Surface: Taking Our Principles Seriously, which offers a nice introduction to Mayyim Hayyim.) The session is moderated by Aaron Katersky, national correspondent for ABC News. (Here's the conference writeup on this session and on the four participants in it.)

First, Paula Brody -- another of the center's founders -- talks about how the center was founded nearly twelve years ago, and how at this point thousands of immersions have taken place there! She welcomes us to the second international mikvah conference; the first was in 2006. We are a crowd of more than 250 people, which amazes and delights me. We come from 22 states cross the USA and also from Israel, and at least eight groups of people are here because they're considering developing a community mikvah like Mayyim Hayyim in their own communities. This is an opportunity, she tells us, to see how mikvah can impact Jews from all walks of life.

Aaron's first question is, "Jonathan, what are we doing here, at a conference about mikvah -- how did we get here?" We got here, Jonathan Sarna says, because of Anita (Diamant), and the room laughs. "It is indeed an astonishing moment," he allows. Almost as far back as we can go, in American Jewish history, we can see men complaining that the mikvah is neglected and that women aren't doing what they should be doing -- these complaints are, he says, historically almost always issued by men! -- in the 19th century there are synagogue meeting minutes filled with notes about the problem of the mikvah, the leaking mikvah and so on, and in the 20th century suddenly it becomes hushed-up, "something that American Jews are rather embarrassed about."

Sarna cites the book The Secret of the Jew, a book which was self-published by Rabbi David Miller in 1930 and was once upon a time frequently given to (male) rabbinic students. It's all about mikvah. Sarna shows a diagram from that book, depicting all of the Jewish institutions in the country on one side of a scale, and the mikvah on the other, and the mikvah would outweigh everything else! Another slide shows a drawing of a mikvah hidden in the closet, which is, he notes dryly, rather telling.

How, then, Aaron asks, did we get from there (gesturing to the slide of the imaginary mikvah in the closet) to here?

Anita Diamant talks about how, when she was writing Choosing a Jewish Life (her book about conversion), the mikvah was somewhat mysterious. "Someone had to tell you where it was, how to get there, how to get an appointment..." She talks about the experience of going to a mikvah with someone who was converting to Judaism, with the sense that that person would probably never return -- and tells a story about seeing a group of people converting all at once, and how the people were standing in a line out the door to immerse one by one, without ceremony, without loveliness. "We owe them, as a community, a beautiful, dignified, joyful welcome," she says; she convened people to work with her after that experience. So for her the journey began with stories about conversions; for others, Mayyim Hayyim has come to mean, and to be used for, all kinds of other things.

In Europe, Professor Sarna says, they have now excavated some of the old mikva'ot. He visited one outside of Prague. "You have to admire the women who, in all weather, went to the mikvah, before electricity, and out of a sense of religious obligation would undertake every month to go to those mikva'ot which not only don't have tiles but don't have floors!... and they felt holy for having done it." (For most of the people I know today who engage in mikvah immersion, it's a conscious choice, something we've taken on to mark special occasions, a way of experiencing a sense of holiness -- but that's very different from how women used to relate to mikvah in earlier eras, and I have tremendous respect for the women who maintained this practice in the face of those difficulties.) "The old needs to be made new and the new needs to be made sacred, and that's what Mayyim Hayyim did," Sarna says.

Aliza Kline asks, "what is it about this ritual that appeals to people now?" And she answers:

From running a place where 7500+ people have come to immerse for all kinds of reasons, I can tell you that there's a hunger for ritual that's physical, meaningful, accessible; there's a greater sense of ownership of ritual among a broader group of Jews; and there's a curiosity about finding things which are deeply rooted, understanding what is Jewish what is meaningful, but also feeling completely free to give it new meaning.

She herself, she says, wasn't interested in observing niddah until there was a potential for a mikvah that "we could control," a place where she wouldn't feel that she was treading on someone else's turf. People are saying, "this is how I want to experience it," she says.

"Weren't we going to get rid of this?" asks our moderator. A ripple of laughter moves through the room. "Judaism is a moving, fluid tradition," says Diamant in response. Did women feel holy after going to mikva'ot like the ones Professor Sarna was describing? "Or maybe it was just what you did, and you gritted your teeth, and then went home and boiled water and washed yourself...? My hunch is that if it had been a beautiful experience, when they got to the United States they would have asked for mikvahs, but they didn't. They asked for schools, for hospitals, for cemetaries..." It's a useful caution: it's easy for us to imagine that the women who went to mikvah in the Old Country (wherever that old country was) necessarily felt exalted by the practice.

"Though there are not so many commandments which were in the hands of women, and this was one of them," Sarna responds. He does assume that mikvah was meaningful to women at that time. Women travel hundreds of miles, even now, to use the mikvah in order to be tahor. But it's true that for the people who came to America and cast off various rituals -- they cast off head-coverings, e.g. -- they cast off the practices which made them feel different from their neighbors. Though water-based rituals, he says, made a huge comeback in America; evangelical Christians have discovered the beauty and meaning of water, and in the 21st century the notion that Jews have rituals around water doesn't seem as foreign as perhaps it did a hundred years ago.

And Diamant notes that "although second-wave feminists saw this as horrible and anti-women, what's happened in the generations since then is that we have a generation of learned and learning Jewish women, who in the tradition of change in Judaism have looked at this again from a position of knowledge, strength, self-confidence, and said, 'this is powerful, we are part of an American ethos of religious experimentation, let's take another look at this.'" We can make something powerful, healing, consoling; niddah is part of it, but it's not the only part of it! Jewish women today understand mitzvah in a very different way, and have expanded the notion of mitzvah.

Kline notes that there's a reason that the old book which Sarna cited earlier had the word "secret" in it -- that used to be how we thought about this stuff! you had to know someone who knew someone to find your way there -- whereas today, it's a very different picture. Mayyim Hayyim has windows which shine a light on what's going on here, both literally and figuratively.

Kline also talks about the importance of language, and about what language the folks at Mayyim Hayyim have chosen. At Mayyim Hayyim they use the term niddah / monthly immersion rather than taharat hamishpacha ("family purity" laws) because for many people, the language of purity and impurity is distancing, and that's not why women who go to mikvah each month are doing it today. Also, Kline points out, people go to mikvah today for many other reasons: not just niddah, but also before or after a marriage, before or after other lifecycle events, and so on. "The change in language opens up access and opens up the conversation."

"In a Victorian age, most aspects of the body were not discussed in polite company," Sarna notes. The institution of mikvah has historically been hidden away. "Those people who needed it would know how to find it." But in today's culture, Diamant agrees, we're much more comfortable talking about body things! "We're part of a larger culture in that regard." Diamant continues:

But mikvah isn't only done because it feels good, or because it's interesting, but because there's a profound need for an experience which is authentic. Our most ancient texts allude to this, and we always go back and figure out, how can we redeem this stuff? Not just mikvah, but things which trouble us in our tradition; how can we understand this in a way that keeps it alive? That's part of the Jewish project.

The physical beauty of Mayyim Hayyim is not trivial or incidental; hiddur mitzvah, "beautifying the mitzvah," is one of the center's founding principles. "In the early days we were accused of being too much like a space," Diamant remembers -- as though people thought there was something wrong with the mikvah being beautiful! Lately, she says, they haven't gotten that critique. Of course, most mikva'ot today are not dank or dirty, like the ancient one Sarna remembers visiting in rural Czech republic; but any Orthodox mikva'ot are built for women's purposes, which means they may be pink, they may feel gendered; but Mayyim Hayyim is not gendered, it's meant for everybody. They want it to feel comfortable for men, for families, for people who are not Jewish. (Openness and inclusivity are clearly cardinal principles here.)

Why, Aaron asks, is a mikvah essential? Why has it historically been up there with the school, the hospital, the cemetary, the deli?

Historically, the answer is pretty simple: if you were observing niddah, then you couldn't have intercourse with your husband until you immersed, Kline replies. (Fortunately, if you couldn't find a mikvah, you could always immerse in a natural body of water.) After that purpose, conversion was historically the primary purpose for mikvah; at Mayyim Hayyim today they get a lot of people who want to mark that moment in a beautiful way. The question, Kline says, is "how welcoming can we be?"

Mayyim Hayyim's other primary purpose, Kline says, is education. "Schoolbuses pull up," she says. "Instead of being secretive and hidden, it's part of the sixth grade curriculum at Temple Beth Shalom!" And as their mikvah becomes part of the standard liberal Jewish education, it becomes normative in a new way.

"It's on the table of Jewish life," says Diamant. "It's one of the choices our children may make as Jewish adults." She has stories about kids who have connection to mikvah, and it's clear to me that this is a powerful subject for her. "Twenty years ago, it was an unfamiliar word; today, at least in this community, it's a familiar experience -- and they don't have any baggage. They don't have those old associations with it. Their mothers might, their grandmothers, but they don't, and that's changed what Judaism means to them."

We move into Q-and-A, and the first question is about historical male usage of mikvah. Sarna responds by talking about how Hasidism puts more more emphasis on the usage of mikvah by men. "In the Hasidic movement, the rebbe would have a private mikvah so that he could immerse on a regular basis; Hasidim often will immerse, in some cases, every day." I'm glad this was raised as a question; I think it's one of the reasons why I have had such wonderful mikvah experiences, which is to say, because of Jewish Renewal's Hasidic roots, there's always been an understanding that mikvah can be a spiritual and transformative experience for people of all genders.

Another question is how Mayyim Hayyim has changed the meaning of mikvah ritual; the questioner asks to hear more about these modern uses of mikvah at Mayyim Hayyim. Diamant responds first by offering the history that men used to use the mikvah, for instance, before surgery or after illness. There's also, she says, a custom of using mikvah during the 9th month of pregnancy, which is passed down from mothers to daughters. (I wish I'd been able to do that.) These traditions have been unearthed by women who are looking for antecedents in our history. These are customary uses, not religious uses; Mayyim Hayyim has shone a light on that, and opened it up further. Diamant continues:

It's one of those kind of 'if you build it, they will come' things. Once we built it, people have articulated uses that seem to me obvious and profund which weren't maybe possible until it was built. For instance, the medical student in our first year who was a cohen and came from an observant family and would come before Shabbat to put an end to his week because he'd been dealing with corpses... People have come marking periods of sobriety. Judaism's all about counting, so: counting how many days, months, years of sobriety has become a use of the mikvah as well.

Kline adds:

The notion of people coming for reasons where they needed a ritual and there wasn't one -- widows who've come when they were finally ready to take off their wedding ring. There was a need for a ritual to mark that, and mikvah made sense to them. Some of them may have gone as a bride as well... And then there are times when there is plenty of ritual, and people are coming to the mikvah on top of that! We've had close to 100 bnei mitzvah; they come sometimes for a quiet, private ceremony with their parent or sometimes a couple of friends... Same with shiva, shloshim, shanah -- people who are in mourning and want to mark those stages of mourning. There is a Sefardic custom of that, but a lot of people have no idea it's a custom, they just feel that it would be right and they come.

There's also a question about how to respond to people who feel that there's no way to liberate mikvah from the sense that it's been used as a tool for the oppression and degradation of women. Diamant's first response is, if we can get them in the door, typically that evaporates. (She seems to be saying that in the face of the atmosphere of, and the physical beauty of, Mayyim Hayyim, those old scripts become inoperative.) "One of the rules of ritual," adds Sarna, "is that other people's rituals frequently seem strange and forbidding whereas my rituals are beautiful, uplifting and meaningful....When it's yours, it's beautiful; maybe the question is, how do we make it yours?" Diamant again takes the microphone and talks about how another part of Mayyim Hayyim's mission is to break down the barriers between "them" and "us" -- "those Jews" do that kind of thing and "we" don't -- in the interest of helping to heal some of the divisions in our community.

An Israeli audience member talks about the importance of the shift in language: from speaking in terms of taharah/tum'ah (impurity/purity) to speaking in terms of "ritual immersion." It used to be that when a woman immersed for her monthly immersion, she was dealing with an understanding of herself as impure; but now, when a woman immerses at Mayyim Hayyim or a place like it, for whatever reason, she is partaking in the work of creation. She is partnering with God in the holy work of making herself anew. Hearing this audience member say that gives me chills; it is a beautiful articulation of this new way of understanding mikvah.