Living Waters

What it takes to immerse yourself in faith


| January-February 2010



Living Water

image by Despina / www.despinageorgiadis.com

This is an excerpt. To read the full version of this article, visit Utne.com/LivingWaters.

Bekah and I hike the trail beside a river swollen from spring snowmelt. It’s that time of the month, which, in the Jewish tradition, occurs about seven days after that time of the month has ended. Bekah’s best friend is out of town so she’s asked me to accompany her to the ritual bath known as mikvah. As an observant Jew she must immerse herself in the mikvah mayim chayim—a gathering of living waters—after her cycle ends and before resuming conjugal relations with her husband.

It is March 1991. We are here because there is no indoor mikvah in Eugene, Oregon—the closest being in Portland, four hours of travel to and fro. A ritual bath in the Willamette River, despite a raging current, is only 10 minutes from Bekah’s house. It’s the age-old dilemma: traffic or drowning?

Fir needles, peeled bark, and decaying maple leaves cushion our path. The brisk air is made colder still with the rustle of winds through stands of alder. I’m wearing jeans, plaid flannel, hiking boots, and a burnt orange Gore-Tex jacket I’ve owned since I first heard of Gore-Tex, about 10 years earlier. Bekah wears a flowing ankle-length dress made of rayon, a silk headscarf, leather moccasins with buttons made from buffalo nickels, a thick wool shawl she knitted with matching gloves. We’re an odd couple, even for Oregon. Like the Blues Brothers, we are on a mission from God.

Bekah and I are both Jewish. She is deeply religious, and I observe the usual doubts of a nonbeliever. I’m unsure about God, less sure about the wisdom of our congregational rabbi, utterly unconvinced about the need to observe more than one or two of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) that Bekah’s family incorporates into daily life.

We are friends by way of our children, because children don’t insist upon friends who are exactly like themselves. We’ve managed to minimize clashes between feminism and tradition by focusing on our common interests. She’s invited our clan to her home for dinner a few times, a kindness I cannot return because Bekah and her family observe the dietary laws of kashrut and they cannot eat a cooked meal at our house. Having been an on-again, off-again vegetarian, I value the decision to eat consciously, so I don’t take it personally. But the ritual of mikvah gets me where I live, inside my body, and I was both surprised and curious when she asked me to accompany her.

kit kellison
1/7/2010 11:48:57 AM

I was very pleased to find the teaser to this article in my email box this morning so soon after waking. Because, as I stretched and welcomed the proximity of my husband as I tried to comprehend the weather of the day, I was aware of a profound gratitude for the snow on the ground and this beautiful man who has shared my bed for over 20 years. But I'm an atheist and as much as I'd like to surrender to a higher power once in a while, I'm completely unable to ignore the cognitive dissonance that warns me every time someone tries to tempt me with the ritual for which I yearn. I distrust the arrogance of anyone who seeks to use their imagined connection to the supernatural to exercise control over me and others. Perhaps they are out there, but I haven't met any spiritual leaders who don't believe that theirs is the one true path. That, for me, is too divisive and destructive a point of view to overlook. It's just as Leslie says, control and seeds of distrust aren't even always in the intention of the sacredized texts, but layered on us (especially women) by centuries upon centuries of intolerant men who seem to interpret without benefit of compassion or empathy. I do believe that ritual can be soothing and personally empowering and I long to share in secular rituals in a life-affirming context. Sometimes, in fact, the loneliness I feel as an atheist makes me wonder whether my intellect is my friend. But my intellect, at least, has the interest of the entire planet at heart.