Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author

Looking for Hope in Mikveh

Last month, I drove down from the Galilee to visit the protest tent of Women Wage Peace, located in Jerusalem outside the Prime Minister’s residence for the duration of the dates of last summer’s devastating “Protective Edge.” Women Wage Peace organized a fast in this tent to send a message that we will not stand by passively as our government does nothing to change the status quo of living from war to war, “operation” to “operation”. Nothing to work towards a real peace agreement.

When I was visiting the fasting women in the tent (women are fasting in rotations of 24-48 hours at a time), I—a post-denominational rabbi who runs the only mikveh (ritual bath) in Israel with a mission of being open to all to immerse for whatever purpose and in whatever manner they choose—gave a short talk about mikveh and its connection to peace and hope.

“Mikveh” and “Tikvah” (hope) are spelled the same in Hebrew, except for their different first letters. God is even called “the mikveh of Israel״ in Jeremiah 14:8, which is usually translated as the “Hope of Israel”. One who hopes is a “mikaveh/mikavah”. God (in the traditional understanding of God as Divine Redemptive Force in the World) is our hope, because God does not give up hope on us. God cheers us on even in these darkest times, hoping we will all, Israelites and Ishmaelites alike, come to our senses and find a way to live in peace.

What I taught that day in the tent went even deeper, however. I spoke about my understanding of the connection between peace and mikveh. The first time we learn about mikveh in the Bible is actually right at the Beginning, in the Creation story. At first all is water—peace and unity—and the Divine Spirit is those waters. Then the Divine Spirit starts separating, creating the dualistic world that is our usual experience of reality, a world infused with the Divine Spirit but that humanity can inhabit as well. All life is largely made up of water, after all. And when we immerse ourselves fully in those Living Waters collected into a pool called a mikveh in Genesis 1:10 (literally, a collection of water), we are invited to reconnect with that peace, that wholeness, that unity that is and always has been and always will be.

In other words, everything and everyone is connected. We are all part of this unity, this connectedness of all, and the more we tap into that truth, the more hope there is for Israel, for humanity, for the planet, and for the universe. When a Jewish Israeli terrorist burns the home of a Palestinian family, killing a baby and his father and perhaps more family members, hope begins to slip through our fingers. This act of senseless hatred is an attempt to deny the ultimate truth of the unity of all; and it will backfire, of course. That hatred will only come back upon us, humanity, in other forms and places. It is a hopeless act of fear trying to create a false sense of security—that it is the “other” who is the one to fear. When really there is no “other,” and the only thing to fear is our own fear.

When an ultra-Orthodox man stabs innocent people marching for equal rights for, and the dignity of, all humans, irrespective of sexual orientation, this is an act coming from that same place of fear and self-righteousness. Where is the love and compassion we are told over and over again, even in this past week’s Torah portion, to have for all? Especially those who are most vulnerable and discriminated against in society? For this hate-filled man to open his heart to these people would have meant acknowledging the connectedness of all, and that is exactly what this man wanted most to deny. Today he kills LGBTs, and tomorrow in retaliation someone kills ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists. What goes around comes around. Hatred breeds hatred.

Last Sunday morning, the same day Shira Banki died of her stab wounds from this man at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, another Shira–whose joyful presence lights up a room the way Shira Banki’s vivacious smile on the front page of Israeli newspapers could not help but do–joined the Jewish People. Little Shira was born of a surrogate mother in Thailand to two Israeli fathers, and like other gay couples who come home with surrogate children from abroad, they converted Shira through Israel’s Reform movement.

Converting through the liberal movements in Israel is a process that culminates with immersion in the ocean or at Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul on Kibbutz Hannaton, the only mikveh in Israel that welcomes non-Orthodox conversions. All other ritual baths in Israel are controlled by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, and while the Interior Ministry recognizes baby Shira’s conversion, the Rabbinate does not. Yet, this is an improvement from five years ago, when her conversion would not have been recognized by any Israeli governmental body at all.

So perhaps therein lies our hope? Society takes steps towards recognizing that unity of all that we each remember somewhere deep down in our collective unconscious. That unity of all that a variety of faiths and spiritual paths strive to reach through spiritual practices like mikveh immersion, meditation, prayer, and chanting, and encourage through acts of charity and lovingkindness. And then there is the backlash. The fear. The voice that says, “Oh no! Don’t go there! That is too dangerous! We may lose ourselves, our identities, our claim on the ultimate Truth!”

The Saturday night before, I participated in an uplifting Havdalah service organized by a number of liberal Jewish congregations in the Lower Galilee, to celebrate difference in the face of the horrific acts of violence perpetrated that previous week against the “other”. After most participants had gone home, a Muslim pharmacist from Kufr Manda, the Arab village across from my own Kibbutz, came over to me to say hello. He said he had come to participate in the service, that he too believes there can be peace if we can learn to recognize the humanity in all people.

This man, Wachid, recognized me because I frequent his pharmacy. Unlike most people who live in Hannaton, I go into Kufr Manda often. Among other things, that is where our family’s medical clinic is located (most people from Hannaton drive further to go to a Jewish town for medical services), and so, that is where I buy most of my pharmaceutical goods.

I had a lovely conversation with Wachid until almost midnight, when we both decided it was time to go home—especially because we both had young children with us. But we exchanged phone numbers and agreed that we needed to do more to bridge the gaps between our neighboring villages. That if there is any hope, this is it: grassroots initiatives like the Women Wage Peace Tent, spreading the idea that there can be another way. Instead of the path of war, hatred and divisiveness, we can follow the path of peace, love and unity.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of two spiritual journey memoirs: Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual counselor (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. She is currently working on a novel and a third spiritual memoir, and her latest book, Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: A Guidebook for Couples, is slated for publication in 2019. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.