Gathering the Waters: the Emerging Mikveh Movement in Israel
Gathering the Waters Mikveh Conference Roundup

Gathering the Waters: Ritual Hazing and Holy Vulnerability - Exploring Resistances to Mikveh

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

During the next workshop slot, I decide to attend the session which seems as though it might be a bookend to the session I attended in the morning (about Marking life transitions with ritual immersion) -- this one is called Ritual Hazing and Holy Vulnerability: Exploring Resistances to Mikveh. The description says:

Is discomfort a meaningful component of initiation, covenantal, and lifecycle rituals? Since it requires nakedness and total immersion in water, can mikveh be seen as a hazing ritual? This session will question the assumption that the current mikveh revival has erased all anxiety and fear. We will invite a frank discussion of emotional and psychological responses to mikveh, considering such issues as personal boundaries and control and the history of women’s relationship to mikveh.

The session is led by Rabbi Debra Reed Blank, Dr. Lori Hope Lefkovitz, and Dr. Vanessa Ochs again.

Dr. Lori Hope Lefkovitz begins by offering an overview of feminist rejection and then embrace of mikvah ritual. "We want to make explicit that the mikveh experience can inspire a range of feelings, including fear and shame," she says, by way of beginning. The hope, she says, is that this group might be able to collectively generate a statement which explains how personal discomfort can be part of the transformative ritual function of mikveh immersion, and how the discomfort needs to be dealt with as part of the experience.

This is fascinating to me in part because my own mikveh experiences have all been uniformly positive. I have loved my mikveh experiences, all of which have been in Jewish Renewal contexts, and I always come out of them feeling blessed to be part of a community where I can have that experience of entering into holy immersion with so many women of so many ages, shapes, and sizes. When we break into singing "Woman I Am," or when we sing a shehecheyatnu and dance around the pond or pool or spring, I love the way that feels, and I love being in my body around these other bodies. But I know that mikveh is inevitably a charged subject, and that for many women, the prospect of revealing their bodies in this way -- even to other women, even in these ways which feel safe and sweet to me -- might feel incredibly unsafe.

"As a Jewish feminist, I have learned the mitzvah of blessing my words so that I can eat them," Lefkovitz says, and the room laughs. Many Jewish feminists once upon a time said that mikveh was entirely unredeemable; and today, many of those same Jewish feminists find themselves relating to and reconstructing mikveh in new and creative ways.

"For me, it's all about body image," says Lefkovitz. "I don't want to get naked in front of somebody and get into water! This business about kavanah and transformation -- get naked and get in water in front of somebody? forgeddaboudit!" And this is a woman who loves and values ritual; she's been the executive director of, she believes in ritual, and yet this is one ritual which is just not comfortable for her.

Teenagers, she notes, aren't always comfortable with our ritual reconstructions. "We [Jewish feminists] rediscovered the notion of menses as something to celebrate," she recalls, "but when I brought that suggestion to each of my own teenaged daughters in turn, they were like --" and makes an appalled face; the room laughs again. She also tells the story of a friend who was going through breast cancer, whose relationship to her own body was not clear, and tells us how a group of friends took this woman for a mikveh experience. She says that although her friend was grateful for the love and the intimacy, the immersion itself -- "I could see, though none of us admitted it at the time" -- was "more than awkward." Mikveh just isn't going to feel appropriate to everyone.

The conclusion of these reflections, she tells us, is that we must face the fullness of the consequences of our successes. "Feminism, Jewish feminism included, has enjoyed many gains -- but entailed in our gains have been losses." We had a fantasy of equality, she reminds us, and a fantasy about how the world would compensate for the changes that happened when women enjoyed equal opportunities in the workforce with men -- but things haven't turned out the way we imagined. "I want us to acknowledge the complexity and the ambivalence, and then find a way to move forward," she says.

In closing, she suggests that we might want to consider this experience of vulnerability as something akin to hazing. The vulnerability, she says, is sanctified. All of the negativity she's articulated (feelings of shame, discomfort, hydrophobia, etc) may have the capacity to be transformed -- and in fact, maybe the reality that this experience is an ordeal for so many women is exactly part of what makes the ritual work.

"The answer to that is yes," says Rabbi Debra Reed Blank. From the perspective of ritual theory, that's a part of how rituals like this one work. She cites an article by Rabbi Cary Kozberg in the Journal of Reform Judaism in 1984, volume 31, who wrote about his experience of performing his own son's brit milah. "The upshot of the article was that what made this particular ritual not only efficacious for him, meaningful and powerful for him and his family, but for Jews down through the centuries, is precisely because it violates human instinct."

I absolutely hear her point about how brit milah violates human instinct -- someday, when I have a lot more time than I do right now, I'd like to write more about that -- though I'm very uneasy with the comparison between that and mikveh immersion. (This probably says something about my discomfort with circumcision vs. my comfort with baring my body in this particular ritual way.)

"Once I read Rabbi Kozberg's article, it took me back to reading some of the writings of Victor Turner, an anthropologist who did work on anthropology in the middle part of the 20th century," she tells us. "He's the one who got this word 'liminal' into the conversation." After reading R' Kozberg's article, she went back to reread Turner. What caught her eye was Turner's understanding of liminality as a breakdown in structure, where social structures break down, where there is chaos and the cosmos becomes chaotic and where the normal order gets reversed or overturned. These are times of danger. Times when, in Kozberg's language, one's human instincts are violated. Just as circumcising one's son goes against one's human instincts, taking off one's clothes in a public environment goes against one's Jewish instincts, she says.

Going to the mikveh, Reed argues, is an inversion of the Jewish value of tzniut, modesty. It's an essentially chaotic gesture in that way. Reed continues:

These experiences of immersion, whether you're ambivalent about the loss of modesty, whether you're ambivalent because of a loss of control (perhaps you're phobic about water), perhaps you're concerned about your body, you're an adolescent -- in all of these, we could easily describe it as, a person is being asked to violate their instincts, to do something that at base violates their instinct... In some way, in that moment, you no longer have control over your own body.

The goals for this session include scrutinizing this issue, and giving language to some of these negative feelings which may arise. For those in this room who work with those who might experience this discomfort, they wanted to give us permission to use language which acknowledges this ambivalence. And for those of us who may ourselves experience this discomfort, they wanted to give us tools and vocabulary to recast or repackage the negative parts of the experience. Ritual theory, she tells us, allows us to view these difficult feelings as part of what makes the ritual efficaceous.

Dr. Vanessa Ochs has the role of being the third speaker and wants to respond to both of the people who've gone before. Responding to Lori, she notes that as an ethnographer, the work she does involves going into the field and being among people who are experiencing rituals, and talking to them before they do the rituals and sometimes afterwards as well. "I realize that what they say to me is not always exactly what they're feeling," she admits, "but I know for sure that when I'm positing that they must be experiencing X, Y, or Z, I am often wrong." She offers that if she saw a disabled person entering into a mikveh, she knows what she might be projecting onto them, but she can't know what their experience is -- nor how they would process the experience after time had passed.

She offers the analogy of cleaning for Passover: we say that what's meaningful for us is the spiritual work of dealing with the leavening in our souls, and yet we scrub our kitchens until they gleam (even as we are also, of course, writing our own haggadot and so on) -- but part of the experience of getting ready for Passover is the Brillo hysteria of "oh my God, I need more cleaning products," just like our mothers did. After also telling a story about building the sukkah and obligating her children to wear bicycle helmets, and how much they hated it then and how much they cherish the memory now, she says, "it's hard to know where a ritual is going to go."

"Who would ever have thought that the mikvah would be redeemed?" she asks us, rhetorically. And she acknowledges that our responses to everything we're hearing is shaped by who we are and what our experiences are. Some of the stories Varda was telling in the last panel made her uncomfortable, e.g., but if those were the rituals of her mother and grandmother, she might yearn to redeem them.

In so many ways, Ochs says, we give up control in order to facilitate the telling of the continuous narrative of the people. She tells a story about her own wedding -- how, at nineteen, she wanted a hippie wedding with some flowers and a friend playing the recorder, but instead she had to live up to the traditions of her people, e.g. a florist and caterer and a band and all of the things her mother wanted! But now she remembers it with pleasure -- the fact that she endured these things for her mother's sake, for her community's sake.

"We live in a time where all we want all our rituals to be meaningful," she says, "but you know what? Certain rituals, be they Jewish rituals or the ritual of studying for the GRE, some of these we emerge through and we don't know where they're going to take us, and they may take us to places of having greater power even if they're torture at the time."

Someone asks, what about people who don't find the mikveh experience to be fraught with issues?

Rabbi Reed responds, clearly there are people who don't find it fraught, and that's fine. But we wanted to give voice to these feelings and experiences -- and wanted to acknowledge that men may also have these issues; this isn't only a "women's issue." For her, the notion of acclimatizing our teens to the idea of mikveh today is still tremendously foreign. "We don't mean to say to anyone that their ritual experience is immature, unformed, or un-nuanced...we just felt it was important to give voice to this other side of things."

Then Vanessa Ochs invites us into a writing exercise. She asks us to write about a ritual experience we have had which involved discomforts along the way. Or, to think about mikveh in particular as a ritual that one might wish to consider, but here are the reasons why one is unable to do it, or why one struggles with it. (The idea is to allow us to reflect on an experience of ritual which may be emotionally or psychologically complicated.)

And then we move into some discussion of what different people wrote, and brainstorming about how some of this conversation could be turned into a format which would be helpful to the folks at Mayyim Hayyim and other places like it. People raise a lot of good and powerful points, among them the reality that 1 in 4 girls is sexually abused before the age of 18 (and it's estimated that 1 in 6 boys are, too) and that a history of sexual abuse is one powerful reason why immersion, and/or being witnessed in nakedness, may not feel safe. We need to be aware of, and sensitive to, realities like these.

Ultimately I'm glad that this session happened. It's useful to have the reminder that not everyone finds the mikveh experience to be as sweet or safe as what we've been hearing about until now. I didn't feel that I had much to offer to the conversation here because I'm not someone who's found mikveh to be uncomfortable, but it was good to sit back and listen, and I hope that having done so will help me to better minister to people who do find immersion challenging as I move into my rabbinate.

A quick personal note: I'm probably not going to be able to blog from the conference tomorrow morning. Today my son was in daycare; tomorrow he'll be with me. So instead of spending the day with my laptop, taking copious notes and posting them promptly, I'm going to spend the day dancing a baby around the back of the room, trying to keep him from crawling into places where he shouldn't be, and hopefully keeping him reasonably contented despite the copious stimulation he's sure to receive from being in a crowd of this size!

I'll try to tweet from the conference tomorrow, and tomorrow morning I'll put up a list of links to all of my conference posts so you can easily find them all in one convenient location. Thanks for reading; please feel free to continue the conversation in comments threads!