The Mikveh’s Relevance in Masorti Communities
By Raya Even David
Limmud 2015 was a wonderful experience for both me and my family, not only for the learning opportunities but for the teaching experience as well. I gave a session, together with my partner Mijael, Rabbi of Edgware Masorti Synagogue, on the mikveh and its relevance in our modern society. We had a unique turnout of students, from different denominations and genders, all with various perspectives on “taking the plunge”. I’d like to take the opportunity that Reflections offers our Masorti communities to share a few insights with you on this subject. Let’s begin with a few facts:
A body of “living” water is used in Jewish tradition for the spiritual ceremony of returning oneself to a state of ritual purity. This natural source of water can be found in springs, lakes and oceans. A mikveh is an artificial pool that collects rain water and therefore can be used for this purpose as well. In Vayikra (Leviticus) 15 + 18 we are told to immerse if we come into contact with anything that renders us in a state of tum’ah (spiritual impurity – not to be confused with physical uncleanness which has got NOTHING to do with our discussion): a dead body, menstrual blood, seminal ejaculation, leprosy… Since the destruction of the Temple, we are all considered ritually impure. Men used to immerse after each ejaculation, but the Talmudic rabbis considered this a regulation that the public couldn’t live by, and since then men have been exempt from immersing regularly. Now-a-days, some Hassidic men choose to immerse daily to maintain a high level of modesty (for it is no one’s business what they did last night). Women, however, have continued to immerse monthly, even to this day.
Judaism is all about separations: kodesh v’chol (Shabbat’s holiness vs. the days of the week), kippah (to separate oneself from Hashem), kashrut (separating meat and milk), etc… Immersing in the mikveh is Judaism’s way of separating us from contact with death and celebrating life!
Masorti Judaism considers this mitzvah relevant and necessary for modern Jews. We have a mikveh located in our very own New North London Synagogue complex – the Sternberg Centre (for booking: 02083495657). Couples observing niddah (sexual abstinence related to the menstrual cycle) have been said to enjoy their “days off” as it prevents monotony in their relationship. Others sense a moment of rebirth as their entire bodies are covered in the spiritual waters, transitioning from their period of separation to their return to intimacy. Of course, there’s always the strong notion of tradition – generations upon generations before us have observed this law and in fact, it is so rooted in Jewish life that the rabbis required from an emerging Jewish community to first build their mikveh before they build their synagogue (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 163). Archaeologists today can immediately identify Jewish settlements by searching for mikvaot.
The mikveh is known to be a source for spiritual preparation. Many enjoy immersing before a Jewish festival, especially High Holidays. A Sofer Stam (the scribe who writes torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot) immerses before starting his holy work, a convert uses it as their last step before joining the Jewish people. In modern times, some have used it for lifecycle events like girls’ baby naming ceremonies, marking your first period, a bat mitzvah or reaching menopause. Since the waters have an empowering effect on one’s sense of renewal, there is growing use of the mikveh as a therapeutic tool for praying for health after a physical illness or a traumatic experience.
It’s no secret that our session in Limmud had an underlying bias: we want to encourage people to follow this beautiful tradition! At the beginning of our relationship, Mijael and I were interested in finding an egalitarian way to observe this mitzvah and agreed to both go regularly, maintaining those necessary days of sexual abstinence up until our monthly immersion. In warm climates, it’s a very romantic experience to immerse in nature, but for those colder months of the year, a mikveh facility is always available, though orthodox mikva’ot only open for women in the evenings and for men in the mornings. As Masorti Jews we are very understanding of premarital sex and our interpretation of halakha would encourage couples to observe family purity laws even before they sanctify their relationship under the chuppah. I believe this practise brings individuals and couples closer together, closer to God and reinforces their commitment, in an intimate and spiritual way.
Another way we chose to incorporate the mikveh in our family life was to immerse our first born, Hallel, in Kibbutz Hannaton’s mikveh under the auspices of the Masorti Movement in Israel. As part of her naming ceremony, we started the day with our immediate family members by “bringing her into the covenant (knisa laBrit) in the flesh”. It was important to us that she be involved physically in her naming ceremony, partaking in the same tradition her Imma follows.
To find out more about this and other related topics, come along to Masorti Women’s Study Forum – Sunday afternoon, 13th March 2016. You can contact me directly for more information: email@example.com
Raya Even David is an Israeli born and raised who arrived in London one and a half years ago with her family. She serves as director of youth education in Edgware Masorti and also works in Alma Primary School as Leader of Jewish Learning.