Gathering the Waters: Marking Life Transitions with Ritual Immersion
Gathering the Waters: Ritual Hazing and Holy Vulnerability - Exploring Resistances to Mikveh

Gathering the Waters: the Emerging Mikveh Movement in Israel

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

After lunch (which was tasty, and I got to sit at a table with a few ALEPH colleagues and also a few lovely people who aren't, or aren't yet, part of that world) there was a lunchtime session on the Emerging Mikveh Movement in Israel, featuring Rabbi Maya Leibovich (who identifies herself as the first Israeli-born female rabbi), author Varda Polak Sahm and Rabbi Haviva Ner David. The session is moderated by Rabbi William Hamilton.

(I loved R' Ner David's Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, and am very much looking forward to her new book Giving Chana Voice: A Feminist Rabbi Reclaims the Women's Mitzvot of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, which will be published this fall by Ben Yehuda Press.)

Rabbi Maya Leibovich tells us that of all the places in Israel, she thinks Jerusalem is the most special place to be. "As a Jew, when you walk in Yerushalayim, even if you're nonreligious, something in your inner kishke beats Jewish," she says. "What happens in Yerushalayim should be meaningful to anybody sitting here." It is her most beloved and most sacred space. "And yet, I want to bring you in to two opposing pictures of Yerushalayim, and I want to say that both of them coexist although they are very contradictory."

She tells us about the most recent Sukkot in Jerusalem. "If you come to Yerushalayim now, you will see more black hats than you've ever seen before." Many non-religious folks have moved out of Jerusalem, and a lot of black hats have moved in. Though she notes also that many black hats have left Jerusalem because they don't have the money to live there! But there is violence. She tells the story of a woman named Adi who wanted to show her boyfriend what Sukkot was like in Mea Shearim, where she had grown up; the woman was most modestly dressed, but she was not allowed in to the neighborhood because she had her boyfriend with her, and she was physically attacked. And was also physically saved, by three haredim (ultra-religious people) -- but the whole thing was exposed in the Israeli papers, and it's a dreadful story.

To a secular Israeli, this looks like a monolithic, zealous world which is meaningless to someone who is secular. And these communities are expanding -- e.g. stories of haredim who want women to stand in the back of the bus. "This is one side of the picture, and it's worrying, because it wasn't like this in the past. Jerusalem was the most pluralistic place!" Rabbi Leibovich describes how it used to be, and says "we've lost something, and we grieve that."

"On the other hand, in that very same city, if you dig a little deeper, you will see a variety of new religious expression crossing all denominations," she tells us. "You will see Israelis who for years said 'this is not for me; I'm Israeli, I couldn't care less for synagogue' saying now, 'wait a second, I'm a Jew, I want to daven.'" There are egalitarian Orthodox minyanim with a mechitzah (a curtain separating men from women) which looks like a little shmatte, she tells us! (Indeed there are; I've been blessed to visit some.) She tells a story about an Orthodox woman whose daughter became bat mitzvah, who read from Torah, and when this rabbi asked her how was this possible and how did the men respond, the woman said, "what men? they didn't even know!" Mikveh is like this in Israel, she says: it's something women can do on their own, and men don't need to know.

In Israel, she tells us, everyone knows what mikveh is. To most Israelis, the practice of Orthodox women going to the mikveh feels like a coercive practice. They don't like the idea of the witness there to tell you how to immerse, and most mikva'ot in Israel are also not beautiful like Mayyim Hayyim! "I want us to look at the laws of taharah and tum'ah, cleanliness and uncleanliness, completely different. I want us to know the texts, that's important; but I want us to consider the possiblity of looking at these laws, after we know them, from a different angle. From a modern point of view that is relevant to uor lives. Let us say, I will do it not because I have to, but because I choose to." In America, she notes, most of us who have any kind of mikveh practice at all are doing it because we choose to; she wants that same thing to be true in Israel.

When she does weddings, she tells us, she says, "Please consider immersion in water." And the couples ask, why? And she says:

I want to uplift you from the mundane; I want you to touch upon the sacred. You've been living together for years. But when you go to the mikveh, you're exercising a moment of death; you're dying and being reborn. The moment that you're under the water, you don't breathe! It's like going back to the womb... The past will be left behind. You were two separate entities, and now you're building a new world! In order for you to feel that it's a new world, a sacred world, give it a chance. I don't send them to the mikveh; I send them to the sea, I send them to springs of water around Yerusahalayim.

Israelis have so many obstacles to talking about mikveh, she notes, but if you talk about immersing in natural waters as an option for healing, an option for renewal, people are more open to the idea. (That sounds right to me too, even for those of us in the States who don't have Israelis' baggage around the notion of mikvah.)

In so many ways, we've gone back to reclaim our texts. We also need to reclaim the body. "Judaism can't just be about intellect, about studying; it also needs to be about the body." Expressing these mikveh teachings to Israelis is a way of enabling them to reconnect with their own tradition.

Varda Polak Sahm has spent years in Mea Shearim. "That was the most important seven years, that gave me the key to understand religious Orthodox people, and to be able to enter various mikva'ot in Israel." Most of the mikva'ot in israel are Orthodox. "For more than ten years I was sitting in the mikveh, listening to the women. I was not interested in the halakha, because halakha belongs to men," she says. "I entered the mikvahs and spent ten years listening to the stories of the balaniyot, the mikveh ladies, and more than that, to the women who came to immerse." After ten years, she wrote her master's thesis on this. She is a folklorist, so that was the background she brought to this study. "In general, I discovered that the mikveh is the opposite of what we, secular women, thought about the mikveh."

Jewish culture is all about categories: clear boundaries, meat and milk, men and women. And, of course, Jews and non-Jews. Nature is not Jewish; culture is. Nature is the raw; culture is cooked. Nature is not under control; Judaism is under control. "Rites of passage transform the person from nature into culture," she explains. "Immersion is a rite of passage that transforms the Jewish women from impure into pure -- I know you don't like these terms, but the women in the mikveh think in these terms!"

Immersion in the mikveh is one of the only ceremonies which is under the supervision of women. Sahm regards mikveh as a temple of women; a place created by women, for women. A place where women have control. In some communities in Israel, immersion of the bride is a very important ritual -- "much more than the ritual of dedicating the Torah scroll in the synagogue," she says. To take the bride into the mikveh requires all kinds of preparation; there are ceremonies and traditions, according to women's folk religious practices. These practices pass from mother to daughter.

Sahm describes two women's rituals. The first is the ritual of the tort cake. The mother bakes a cake at home on the night before the eve of her daughter's wedding. When she comes to the mikveh with her daughter and all the girls in the family, and the mother-in-law and sisters-in-law and so on, the bride immerses, and when she emerges from the mikveh the mother breaks the cake. The cake with a hole inside is a symbol of breaking virginity, Sahm explains. And then the mother feeds a bit of the cake to her daughter, a symbol of eating the good fortune that her mother cooked for her; and then the mother feeds the cake to the other girls who also want that good fortune.

The other ritual is the ritual of henna -- a green powder which, when you cook it, becomes red. The old Moroccan ladies take this powder, cook it into a sticky red paste, and after immersion, the oldest women in the group take a spoonful of the henna and put it on the palms of the bride. The henna is protection against the evil eye during the sensitive moment of transition from virginity into womanhood. (If this is interesting to you, I found a article about this very subject by Varda Polak Sahm, published in Zeek -- The henna ceremony.)

"Rituals like the cake ritual and the henna ritual are rituals of women's empowerment," says Sahm. When women engage in these rituals, and believe that they are doing sweet things for their daughters or granddaughters, that is empowerment. If a woman has lost her legs and goes into the mikveh and finds herself once again to be beautiful, that is female empowerment. "As a young woman, I hated these rituals," Sahm admits, "but today there is a huge movement in Israel of young girls, looking for spirituality, looking for a special way to express themselves" -- and mikveh is one of the places they turn. "After going to India to the ashrams, after going to so many places, young women are returning to Judaism. They want to go back to the source," she says.

Rabbi Haviva Ner-David tells us that unlike her fellow panelists, she grew up in America. The year after she got married, she was living in DC and getting an MFA in creative writing, and found that there was a job opening to be the coordinator of a Conservative congregation's mikveh, so she applied. She did that job for two years, and found it incredibly empowering to guide people through that mitzvah, mostly for conversions but also for other reasons ranging from healing from breast cancer to coming monthly. "That was one of the reasons I decided to become a rabbi," she says.

She spent a whole year at Drisha studying hilkhot niddah (the laws of women's ritual immersion), and then moved to Israel and spent ten years studying in order to become a rabbi, and also wrote her doctoral dissertation on the subject of women and mikvah. "I've had a bit of a fascination over the course of my life," she says, and the room chuckles. After spending years teaching women, she came to realize that it was something men should know about too, so she began suggesting that men too come and learn about this. She started teaching couples before getting married, and extended the learning to a realm of other things. And when she was doing this teaching, people would ask her where they could go to the mikveh, and she didn't have a good answer for them. "I myself prefer to go to the mayanot, the springs that Maya talked about."

There were mikva'ot which had been renovated and might be physically pretty, but it was still difficult for women to go to those mikva'ot and do anything especially personal or creative, as R' Ner-David was teaching. "I would teach, before you're going into the mikvah, what does it mean that you can't have something between you and the water? It's something about, you need to feel that you're in the most pure state that you can be, like when you were born. But when you actually go to the mikvah, the woman there might say to you, 'you can't be wearing nail polish.'" (In other words, R' Ner-David was trying to teach about the spiritual meanings, but the mikveh ladies would be fixated on the physical details.)

She and her family (husband and six kids) moved to a kibbutz in the Galil, called Kibbutz Hannaton; the kibbutz was founded by Masorti (Conservative) Jews, so there is a mikveh there. One of the reasons she wanted to move there was the opportunity to revive the mikveh, which she is trying to turn into the Israeli equivalent of Mayyim Hayyim. Rabbi Ner-David offers a brief overview of mikva'ot in Israel now; the picture is somewhat brighter than it used to be, but it still sounds like mikveh is mostly the purview of Orthodox communities there. But she's now running the mikveh at her kibbutz; the mikveh is called Shmaya. "The main thing about the mikveh there is that it's an open-door policy," she explains. "Anyone who wants to use the mikveh, can use it, no questions asked."

Shmaya is used for non-Orthodox conversions; men and women both use it; indeed, she allows men and women to go together, if a couple wants to do a mikveh ritual together. They also do education for teens and adults, both Israelis and non-Israelis. (All of this is, I think, even more radical in an Israeli context than it is here in Newton.) When teen groups come, she encourages them to immerse -- "it's quite a scene, all of them standing in a line in their towels waiting to go in one at a time, but it's amazing what they say afterwards about their first experience with mikveh!" It's powerful and memorable, and it will stay with them forever, and if they ever want to do it again, she notes, they can.

Rabbi Ner-David tells us the story of a bride who came to use her mikveh, and the bride had had cerebral palsy as a child and had been thrown into a body of water to attempt to learn how to swim, and therefore has a deep fear of water. When she converted, she had a traumatic experience in the mikveh, because they forced her to go in and made her immerse further than she wanted to, so when she was getting married she was terrified to go to the mikveh. "But she really wanted to, so she called me," Ner-David recalls. Ner-David spent two hours with her, and when it came time for the immersion, they went very slowly: "okay, great, you got your foot in; let's keep going, a little more." (Wow.)

"As you can see," our moderator says in closing, "there's a tremendous amount happening in Israel!" Indeed.