Metzora and its precursor Tazri’a have always been difficult to equate with life in our days (as with many other rituals in the Torah), other than through the concept of public health. The unclean are detoxified and brought to atonement through cleansing and ritual sacrifices administered by the priest.
The latter verses of the parasha deal specifically with menstruation. But why should a woman be impure through something that is normal and healthy! Bleeding for any other reason may certainly be unhealthy. But menstruation is a normal aspect of women’s health and wellbeing and, of course, a sign of the life that she has the potential to nurture. In menstruation, then, we see an outflowing of the potential for life that didn’t come to fruition that time.
Later, the ritual included immersion in water, in the mikveh. The writer Mierle Laderman Ukeles (Heresies: The Great Goddess, 1978) calls the mikveh a ‘primal water-womb’, where the potential of life is renewed. ‘If Heaven is the home of eternal life, in all the caring of continuing love, the mikvehis a room in Heaven.’
Laws of family purity, of which the mikveh reflects one, are not adhered to by many non-orthodox Jews these days. But in Israel, in the heart of the Lower Galilee, amidst fields of grass and wild flowers, lies the only Masorti (Conservative) mikveh in the State of Israel, on Kibbutz Hannaton. Following the dissolution of the original kibbutz about ten years ago, the mikveh became run-down and was in urgent need of repair. Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David, volunteer mikveh director, is overseeing the renovation and rejuvenation of the mikveh. She has expertise in the halachotregarding mikveh and ritual immersion and has a welcoming and non-judgmental approach that draws Jews to explore Jewish spirituality via the mikveh. Run in conjunction with the Hannaton Educational and Spiritual Centre, programming includes retreats and seminars on all aspects of ritual life from an innovative religious perspective, including:
– Monthly renewal immersions (for couples or individuals);
– Pre-Shabbat and holiday ritual immersions by women and men;
– Approximately 200 conversions a year through the Masorti Movement in Israel;
– Women’s study groups and Rosh Chodesh immersions;
– “Experience and Study” mikveh seminars for rabbinical students, teens, and adolescents;
– Life cycle and transition mikveh rituals including: Bar and Bat mitzvah, pre-wedding, post-natal, menopause, empty nest, divorce, recovery from illness, miscarriage, and bereavement;
– Retreats for marriage preparation, healing, and bereavement all incorporating a mikveh element or ritual.
So important was the ritual bath in past times that if a community gathered anywhere, the first requirement was to build the mikveh, before anything else! Mikveh immersion is, of course, not only a post-menstruation or conversion ritual. When we were in Kibbutz Hannaton in the summer as part of EAJL’s three-week programme at the Conservative Yeshiva, Rabbi Ner-David explained how people are finding new meaning in ritual immersion in water as well as engaging in the ancient rite. Rabbi Ner-David, and the Kibbutz members, are very welcoming. Why not go and try it!
Jaclyn Chernett is a founder member of, and Chazan at Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue, founder and director of the European Academy for Jewish Liturgy and Vice President of Masorti Judaism