SHEILAH KAST, host:
For more than 3500 years, observant Jewish women have made 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 was 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. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH reporting:
Watching Rebecca Sher's monthly immersion in the mikvah, you see very little that's changed from the countless women who have fulfilled the same Jewish commandant for the millennia. Just like those before her, she washes her hair, cuts her nails and removes her wedding rings before she steps down the stone stairway into a small pool of water. Her naked body crouching in the water, Sher takes a deep breath and plunges under, rolling just for a moment in the warm pool before coming up to recite the prayer.
But what is different about this mikvah immersion is that it's not being done 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.
Ms. REBECCA SHER: I always felt like it suggested that a woman was unclean and that's why she had to come and immerse. But this is a completely different animal.
SMITH: 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.
Ms. SHER: 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 or - it makes me think about, you know, I have three children, the miracle that I was able to give birth to them. And I appreciate God's work.
SMITH: 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.
Ms. SHER: It's like a honeymoon all over. There's that anticipation, but also it made our intimacy something very, very sacred.
SMITH: Sher is one of thousands 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.
Rabbi ELYSE GOLDSTEIN (Reform Rabbi, Toronto): As a feminist I support taking back, reinventing, reappropriating, someone has said hijacking - I really like that - the mikvah...
SMITH: Reform Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of Toronto is one of several hundred 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 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 PhD, or breaking up with a boyfriend.
Rabbi GOLDSTEIN: It's not only been rewrapped, it's actually been reformulated. So this is not just your grandmother's mikvah. But this is not your grandmother's Judaism altogether.
SMITH: 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 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.
Cole has just immersed to mark the end of a lifelong struggle with anorexia.
Ms. RACHEL COLE: There was really a sense of sadness, and I was almost about to cry. And 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. And 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.
SMITH: Nearly 2,500 women and men have immersed at Mayyim Hayyim since it 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 Bill Hamilton, of Congregation Kehilath Israel in Brookline, supports alternative uses of the mikvah, but he cautions the mikvah must not be misunderstood as some kind of easy or magic cure.
Rabbi WILLIAM HAMILTON (Congregation Kehilath Israel): The concern is that there will be a kind of trivialization or a diluting of the ritual. And I think there will be a time and a place for pumping the brakes. But I'm not sure that we're there yet.
SMITH: Ultimately, Barry Shrage, president of Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies, says the reinvention of the mikvah will still remain meaningful as long as it's well grounded in tradition and community.
Mr. BARRY SHRAGE (President, Combined Jewish Philanthropies): This is not studying Kabbalah with Madonna. This is something different. The Kabbalah with Madonna is not connected to community. It is universalized to the point of nonexistence, and this is really quite different.
SMITH: 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 a principal of an orthodox day school outside Boston, and a consultant at Mayyim Hayyim.
Ms. COOKIE ROSENBAUM (Consultant): Even though it's, you know, it's not my personal mikvah, and they do some things differently than the way I would choose, I think it's a wonderful thing in the Jewish community. Because it doesn't help someone if I try to help them connect where I am. It only helps if I can figure out a way to help them connect where they are.
SMITH: Twenty-five years ago, Rosenbaum says, she never would have dreamed she'd be dangling the idea of mikvah to attract liberal Jews.
The paradox is not lost on Reform Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. As she put it, I am an agent of change, working to preserve tradition.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
KAST: Is American Judaism in its golden age? Author Anita Diamant thinks so. Hear more from her at npr.org.
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