Posted on: August 14, 2012
Tablet’s Allison Hoffman wrote an amazing piece about Mikvah today that has me thinking about which mitzvot we, as secular Jews, embrace and those we do not. Mikvah is one of those that I wish I could embrace in a more regular way similar to Orthodox women…it just seems unnatural. I’m not heterosexual, therefore laws of niddah don’t apply to my partner and I. I suppose we could practice family purity if we wanted to, but it’s not who we are and the halachic rules don’t apply.
It was good to read this today and I’m thinking about how to make this particular mitzvah more prevalent in my life in a meaningful way.
The New American Mikvah From Tablet.com
Leah Chanin was raised in a traditionally observant home in Galveston, Texas, but it wasn’t until she was in her sixties and living in Washington, D.C., that she first performed one of the most ancient Jewish ceremonies: ritual immersion in a mikveh. “When I was growing up, no one went to the mikveh except the very Orthodox,” Chanin told me. “If someone said they were going, people would say, ‘That’s what my bubbe did—not me!’ ”
Now 82, Chanin is so enthusiastic about introducing younger Jews, women and men alike, to the practice that she volunteers as a mikveh guide at Adas Israel, a large Conservative synagogue in Washington. A retired lawyer, Chanin arrives in pantsuits and high heels, perfectly coiffed and turned out with bright red nails and matching lipstick, and patiently leads her charges through the small pool and adjacent shower area. It’s hardly glamorous—the dim, windowless mikveh, added in a 1989 synagogue renovation, is hidden on a lower floor beneath the main sanctuary, tiled in shades of beige under a yellowing plastic light fixture—but more than 400 people, many of them not synagogue members, venture in each year.
Some are in the process of conversion, but about half visit as part of bridal preparations, before their bar or bat mitzvahs, or to mark major life milestones. And a growing number come to observe some form of the traditional taharat hamishpacha, the rules governing bodily purity that have largely fallen out of the non-Orthodox American Jewish vernacular. “We’re seeing a big increase in halakhic use,” said Naomi Malka, the synagogue’s mikveh coordinator.
It’s part of a nascent movement among Reform, Conservative, and progressive Orthodox Jews in reviving the practice of mikveh, which involves bathing in “living water,” usually collected rainwater. (As Malka tells visitors, “You’re going to be in water that has existed since the beginning of time.”) Just as some not-strictly-observant Jews have adapted the concept of Shabbat by declaring Saturdays off-limits for email or the Internet, younger women and men whose parents might have dismissed the idea of going to the mikveh as hopelessly retrograde have begun exploring how to make the idea of ritual cleansing relevant to contemporary, secular Jews.
For traditional Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, mikveh is an accepted feature of adult Jewish life, just as it was to countless generations; one online directory lists 365 Orthodox mikvehs in the United States, ranging from small, aging facilities to plush bathhouses kitted out with special bridal suites. But where 20 years ago there were only a handful of Conservative and Reform mikvehs, today there are more than two dozen catering to Jews across the liberal spectrum, and groups from New York to San Diego are planning to build new facilities that would operate as spiritual clubhouses, with classes and therapy offerings alongside the ritual pools. The interest extends to Israel, where one group is fundraising for a new mikveh and women’s center in Jerusalem. These new attendees have brought novel rituals to the mikveh, changing some of the ritual baths’ longstanding customs; in return, the mikveh itself has changed the new attendees, opening up those longstanding customs to a new audience.
The philosophy tying all these projects together—using mikveh as a particularly Jewish place for spiritual renewal, a notion that owes more to yoga than to biblical commandments on bodily purity—has its intellectual home at Mayyim Hayyim, an independent mikveh that opened in 2004 in Newton, Mass., just west of Boston. From its earliest days, the staff worked with artists, psychologists, and other medical professionals to find ways to link the process of stepping in sanctified water with marking psychological or physical changes—to make the mikveh a place for individual prayer, rather than focusing solely on seemingly arcane rules of bodily purification. “Mikveh is our model, but it’s a paradigm for helping people find meaning in a ritual they haven’t felt is theirs,” said Aliza Kline, Mayyim Hayyim’s first executive director.