Reinterpreting the Mikveh
Making it relevant today.
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L.
Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
To plunge into the mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) is to plunge into fresh connections with Creation and with our spirituality.
The Rabbis derived their laws that require an immersion in the mikveh in large measure from Leviticus (see at 12:1-8, 15:16, and 11:36). They rooted the laws in a need to purify oneself ritually after certain conditions such as menstruation, male seminal emission, certain skin diseases, or contact with the dead. Removing impurities was a precondition for coming into contact with the holy, such as in approaching the sanctuary. With the destruction of the Temple, these laws remained mandatory for women and optional for men. While traditional Jews continue to use the mikveh for "family purity," most liberal Jews rarely enter the mikveh. When they do, they often enter the mikveh for different reasons. What might prompt liberal Jews to immerse in the mikveh's waters?
The mikveh takes us back in time, as we immerse ourselves in the world of Creation. The root k-v-h that forms the word mikveh appears for the first time in Genesis (1:9): "Let the waters beneath the sky be collected [yikavu] in one place." Further, in the next verse emerges the expression mikveh bamayim, the name given to the seas, where k-v-h connotes "the gathering." This first mikveh is filled with mayim (water).
In the most archaic Hebrew script, the letter mem is a zigzagging line, drawn like waves that recall water. It is interesting to note that in many languages, the phoneme "m" is associated with "mother" (ima, umm, mutter, mere, madre, mama, etc.). The person who plunges into the ritual bath of the mikveh—entirely surrounded by water, nude, without any barriers, and without touching its sides-resembles the fetus in the mother's womb. The immersion in the mikveh becomes a return to the sensations of the uterus, a return to our source and an act of renewal.
You cannot know who you are without knowing whence you came. This return to what happened before is sometimes a way of softening the traumas of the past, to start anew after a difficult life experience. Conversely, sometimes it is a way to celebrate something precious in one's life or something new. The word kav means "to be strong" or "strength" in Aramaic. The return to our source reinforces us.
Water appears first in the second verse of the story of Creation: "God's spirit (ruach) glided over the face of the waters" (1:2). Thus, from the very beginning, water is forever linked to the divine, to the spiritual. Spirituality in relation to water is not necessarily about "purity." Purity was originally attached to the mission of the Temple; since the Temple exists no more, purification need not apply to contemporary immersion in the mikveh. Going to a mikveh is not only a means of washing away the past, of removing the legacy of some "sin," but also of preparing for the future. This is how the mikveh functions when used to prepare for Shabbat and holidays or important moments in life. In this case, mikveh is practiced by both women and men.
Traditional Jewish law requires that only women go to the mikveh. However, when the immersion in a mikveh is part of a couple's sexual life, if both partners go to the mikveh, they together assert that they are taking charge of their sex life. Making a visit to the mikveh a regular part of the cycle of a couple's sexual life does not imply a denial of sexuality, but rather a couple's decision to set temporal boundaries to their sexuality. Jewish tradition honors sexual impulses.
The Talmud (BT .Yoma 69b) tells us that without passion the world would cease to exist. However, sexuality, like water, must be channeled in order for life to flourish fully. Passion is exhilarating, but it is not a permanent condition. Moreover, it may gain in intensity when limits are set, as is true with music--where the silent notes underscore the melody. So it goes with sexuality: the downtime (which could be confined to menstruation in the case of women), punctuated by the mikveh utilized by both partners, is a form of suspension--a Sabbath-of sexuality. It can leave the space necessary to discover a different face of the other, in a more disciplined tension.
In Genesis 1, God creates the world by separating the waters and then withdrawing them to make space for earth and life to appear. The Akkadian root ku'u (one of the possible antecedents of the Hebrew word kav) means "to wait for, to stretch, to underscore the tension of enduring or waiting." Oscar Wilde said: "In this world there are only two tragedies; one is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it." Expectation is the romantic framework of love and desire. The mikveh reintroduces the other as a friend; the lover becomes a friend again-and the friend, a lover.
The mikveh likewise reintroduces spirituality into our lives in a habitual manner. The rabbinic sages capture the power of habits in their determination that frequently occurring rituals take precedence over infrequently occurring rituals (BT Sukkah 54b, 56a; P'sachim 114a; M'gillah 29b; and elsewhere). We are called upon not to build life upon the exceptional but rather to renew the ordinary; such is perhaps one of the secrets of one's being together with another in partnership.
When one plunges into the mikveh, the links with Creation and with our spirituality extend even further. When we remember that we are created in the image of God, mikveh becomes a reminder of the infinite within the finite, the immortal within the human, the limitless options offered to humanity. It is not surprising then that the Torah is compared to water in rabbinic literature. To immerse in water is also to plunge into the "Universe of the Torah," the infinite source of transformation of the world.
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