Take Me to the Mikveh

The Jewish ritual of living waters makes a comeback.

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Like a powerful force of nature, young feminists have brought once-discarded women’s traditions crashing back to shore for a second examination. This relentless tide has reopened discussions on everything from the mundane (housework and knitting) to the racy (stripping and the sex trade).

More recently, interest seems to have turned to the spiritual, with women of all religious backgrounds proudly reclaiming traditions their feminist foremothers had all but dismissed. These traditions take many forms—from Muslim women’s modest covering (hijab) to Christian feminists’ reawakened passion for Mary.

For many Jewish women, the latest rediscovery is the mikveh (also mikvah), the rabbinically commanded monthly bath marking the end of a married woman’s menstrual period and her return to sexual relations. According to the Jewish family Web site mishpacha.org , the mikveh ritual can take place in a gathering of 'living waters,' a natural body of water like the ocean, a stream, or a cistern of rainwater. Most modern mikveh, however, are pools that combine “living water” with ordinary well or tap water in a manner specified by rabbis.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Jewish feminists claimed that the mikveh and other laws dealing with niddah, or menstruation, deemed women’s natural cycles unclean. (Under rabbinical law, married couples are forbidden to have sexual relations during the woman’s menstrual period and for seven days after menstruation has ceased. Some couples even sleep in separate beds during that time.) Objecting to what they saw as the patriarchal concept of “family purity,” many feminists rejected the mikveh and the rituals that surround it. Mikveh continued, of course, but mostly among Conservative and Orthodox Jews.

“Early feminists were very negative about the mikveh, seeing it as a denigration of women, a focus on ‘cleanliness’ and ‘impurity’ that seemed to be a way of keeping women from tainting men,” says Shuly Rubin Schwartz, assistant professor of American Jewish history at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. “Now women are saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is a tradition that was an important part of Judaism for our foremothers. Let’s look at the deeper meaning.’”

Danya Ruttenberg, editor of Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (Seal, 2001), is one such woman. A self-described “egalitarian Jew,” Ruttenberg had always been both intrigued by the idea of the mikveh and turned off by what she perceived to be the ritual’s not-so-hidden agenda.

But over time, as she became more observant, Ruttenberg found herself attracted to what she calls “the naturalistic aspect of Judaism,” the faith’s connections to the cycles of nature and the human body. Just this year, Ruttenberg finally decided to take the plunge, so to speak, and paid a visit to a New York City mikveh. It was a spirit-shifting experience.

“I didn’t really know the blessings you’re supposed to say and I was feeling shaky and nervous, but then I got out of the water, closed the door to the dressing room, and suddenly felt like ‘This worked,’” Rutenberg recalls. “It felt like someone had dumped my soul into some really good water and then poured it back in.”

More and more women are visiting mikvehs, even if they do not follow traditional niddah laws..

In the Jewish cultural magazine Moment (April 2001), Niles Elliot Goldstein observes: “Jewish feminists . . . have begun immersing themselves in mikveh waters—for untraditional reasons. They use it to celebrate life cycle events such as the onset of menstruation, midlife, or marriage, as well as in times of grief, and as a healing ritual following sexual assault, abortion, or divorce.”

After years of associating the mikveh with secrecy, shame, or duty, women seem more drawn to the ritual when they realize no one is requiring them to go.

“When mikveh is taken up by women in liberal denominations, it is not a question of having to do anything,” Schwartz says. “It’s more an attitude of, ‘I choose to embrace this because it adds meaning to my life. This is something I’m choosing to do. It’s not because some man is telling me I have to.’”

Men also use mikveh, though for different reasons and traditionally to a lesser degree than women. In recent years, men from liberal congregations have formed “mikveh clubs,” whose members visit the mikveh together weekly, or before major holidays. “When I’ve gone to the mikveh and the next day am in synagogue praying, I catch myself realizing that I’m praying differently than I usually do,” New Yorker Jerry Raik told The Jewish Week (Aug. 17, 2001). 'It gives me a heightened consciousness, a greater focus.'

And mikveh devotees now even have their own sound track. After bringing the house down during Eve Ensler’s star-studded V-Day bash in New York City, Mikveh, an all-woman klezmer band, released its self-titled debut album earlier this year to rave reviews in Rolling Stone.

Clearly, mikveh is more than a trend. It represents a serious longing for spiritual meaning, a renewed commitment to religion, and a meaningful reinterpretation of tradition.

Mikveh is “something that’s very unusual in our world today,” Reform movement rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman told The Jewish Week. “It’s not like lighting candles or saying a blessing over a cup of wine. It’s radically different because it requires a full body. It’s as ancient a ritual as we have, far older than most of the rituals we observe today. It’s extraordinarily simple and brief, but it is undeniably powerful.”