Feminist Jews Revive Ritual Bath for Women

Rebecca Sher

hide captionRebecca Sher prepares to immerse herself. Her mikvah attendant, Kathy Bloomfield, stands by.

Tovia Smith, NPR

Women in Judaism

Among the advocates for the modern mikvah is Anita Diamant, author of the best-selling book The Red Tent, a feminist take on an Old Testament story.

Diamant argues that American Judaism, which she calls "minhag," is in its golden age — and so is the role of women within it.

"Feminism is actually a profound mandate of Judaism's mission," Diamant says.

Diamant founded the Mayyim Hayyim mikvah center outside Boston. Hear her discuss the role of women in Judaism during a recent conference in Boston:

For more than 3,500 years, observant Jewish women have been making monthly trips to a ritual bath called the mikvah.

Their immersion is seen as a kind of purification after each menstrual cycle, and it marks the time when a wife is permitted to resume sexual contact with her husband.

For several generations, the practice has been dismissed by liberal Jews as primitive and demeaning. But in recent years, the mikvah has been making something of a comeback, as even the most feminist Jews are reinventing the ritual for the 21st century.

A Modern Mikvah

Watching Becca Sher's monthly immersion in the mikvah, you see very little that has changed from the countless women who've fulfilled the same Jewish commandment for millennia.

Just like those before her, Sher washes her hair, cuts her nails and removes her wedding rings before stepping down a stone stairway and into a small pool of water. Naked, she crouches in the water, then plunges under, rolling just for a moment in the warm pool before resurfacing to recite a prayer.

But what is different about this mikvah immersion is that it is not being undertaken by an observant or Orthodox Jew. Sher doesn't keep kosher. She doesn't follow the rules of the Sabbath. And a year ago, pretty much all she knew about a mikvah was that she didn't like it.

"I always felt like it suggested a woman was unclean, and that's why she had to come and immerse," Sher says. "But this is a completely different animal."

Sher says it was her daughter who first introduced her to a modern interpretation of the mikvah as an affirmation of her femininity and fertility.

"It gives me a chance to appreciate the miracle of my body — and I’m not drawn to my thighs, you know, they’re too big," she says. " It makes me think about [my] three children, and the miracle that I was able to give birth to them, and I appreciate God’s work."

Sher says she and her husband also find beauty in abstaining from sex each month until she goes to the mikvah —- not because of any menstrual stigma, she says, but because they find it meaningful.

"It's like a honeymoon all over," she says. "There's that anticipation but also, it made our intimacy something very, very sacred."

A Feminist Reinvention

Sher is one of thousands of Jewish women around the nation who are making mikvahs once again crowded and fashionable — even among the feminists who once had only contempt for a ritual they considered degrading.

"As a feminist, I support taking back, reinventing, reappropriating, someone has said 'hijacking' — I really like that — the mikvah," says Reform Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, drawing laughs and nods from many of the several hundred people who came to Boston recently for a conference on contemporary uses of the mikvah.

In ancient times, the mikvah was most commonly used by women — and men — for ritual cleansing after coming in contact with death. Today, traditional immersion is usually explained as a spiritual purification, to mark the passing of potential life that comes with each menstrual cycle. It's also commonly used for conversions to Judaism.

But as Goldstein points out, the mikvah is also being used today as a kind of spiritual therapy, for everything from getting over a miscarriage, to completing a round of chemotherapy, finishing a doctoral degree or breaking up with a boyfriend.

"It has not only been rewrapped, but actually been reformulated," says Goldstein, who directs an adult learning center for liberal Jews in Toronto. "So this is not your grandmother's mikvah. But this is not your grandmother's Judaism altogether."

Spiritual Therapy

Indeed, after decades of assimilation and rejecting ritual, more Jews are now openly embracing all kinds of tradition, and they're thirsting for spirituality.

At the Mayyim Hayyim mikvah center just outside of Boston, 36-year-old Rachel Cole steps out of a small pool that looks more like a Jacuzzi in a five-star spa than any traditional mikvah. After a lifelong struggle with anorexia, Cole emerges from the water with both a sigh and a smile.

"There was really a sense of sadness, and I was almost about to cry," Cole says. "I was kind of hoping for the past hurts and the bad stuff to be kind of washed away, and I went under, and that's what it felt like was happening. I just feel like God really met me in the water. And I felt like I can, from this moment on, live more freely and live with joy."

Nearly 2,500 women and men have immersed at Mayyim Hayyim since the center opened two years ago. There is some resistance within the Orthodox community to some of the more unorthodox immersions. Some worry that stretching the mikvah too far from its original intent, or overusing it, might reduce it to a pop culture phenomenon like feng shui.

Conservative Rabbi William Hamilton of the Congregation Kehilath Israel in Brookline, Mass., supports alternative uses of the mikvah, but he says the trivialization of the ritual is a real concern. He also worries that as the mikvah becomes more popular, it might be misunderstood as some kind of easy — or magic — cure.

"I think there will be a time and place for pumping the brakes, but I’m not sure that we're there yet," Hamilton says.

Connecting to the Community

Ultimately, says Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, a reinvention of the mikvah will remain meaningful, as long as it is well-grounded in tradition and community.

"This is not studying Kabbalah with Madonna," Shrage says. "This is different. Kabbalah with Madonna is not connected to the community. It is universalized to the point of non-existence. This is really quite different."

Still, many see the new popularity of the mikvah as a great opportunity to reach some Jews who might never set foot in a synagogue.

Cookie Rosenbaum is the principal of an Orthodox Jewish day school outside Boston and a consultant at Mayyim Hayyim. She says she's both surprised and thrilled that the Mikvah has come back into favor with liberal Jews.

"When I got the e-mail about this [Mikvah] conference," she says, "I was like 'What is happening?' The reform movement is sponsoring a conference on Mikvah, and they're asking me to be on a panel? The Messiah must have come!"

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