On the First Yahrzeit of the Mikvah

Noach with the Rabbanit

A year ago, our waters were robbed from us.  Our holy mikvah was tarnished, attacked, questioned, defiled. The purity and sacredness was taken away.  It was stripped of its privacy, its holiness, its uniqueness. People lost faith in their leaders and in Orthodoxy.  How does one purify something that purifies?  How can we embrace this holy mitzvah and make it holy once again?

G-d created an incredible world, but humankind came and destroyed it, poisoned the wells, corrupted man and beast, perpetrating every sin under the sun.  But what was the worst? The Torah teaches that “the earth was filled with Hamas (robbery).”  The Generation of the Flood stole the clothes off one another’s backs; they moved their fences into their neighbors’ properties.

Finally, Hashem declares “the accusation of their thievery has come before Me and therefore I can no longer delay their punishment (Sanhedrin 108).”  Robbery was the main reason why He had to cleanse the world.

Thievery is a selfish crime.  It represents the lowest level of human behavior since it is done without any concern for others.  Indeed, our Sages explain that if a man came along with a basket of peas, each sinner would take one or two, reasoning that ‘it’s no big deal.  One missing pea won’t hurt them.’  But before you knew it, all the peas were gone.

So G-d decided that it was time to purify the world.  Water, because it is the most amazing natural resource — it is all encompassing, it overflows, it cleanses, purifies and sustains life.  Hashem sent the Great Flood for forty days, corresponding to the forty se’ah required measurement of the mikvah.  A mikvah is meant to purify, to connect to the waters of Eden, to become complete once again.  So too the world was to return to its natural perfect state.

Last year, our mikvah was stolen from us. From every practicing Jewish woman. From the Orthodox world. From honest, sincere rabbis and rebbetzins, defending the faith across the globe.  In the perpetrator’s mind, it was just a pea or two, no big deal.  But he stole our world from us. The mikvah that was meant to purify was defiled. The forty se’ah, instead of purifying, became the Great Flood of destruction.

It’s time to take back what is yours. How do you repurify, recleanse, reclaim your sacred waters?

Today, I want to share one special woman’s incredible journey.  Not only did she welcome this holy mitzvah, but she embraced it through her uniquely feminine connection with the Almighty.  She has kindly allowed me to share her story below.

May we all merit to cleanse ourselves and to reclaim this holy uniquely feminine mitzvah by taking ownership and becoming one with the forty se’ah of purity.

May we be spared from the terror of today’s Hamas and all who seek to destroy our people.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbanit Batya

**********

The Mikveh and Me

Can a feminist infuse this ancient Jewish ritual with meaning?

I’m getting married again, at age 66, and we want a traditional Jewish chuppa! Abraham belongs to the Orthodox synagogue, and I to the Conservative, so we had to make a choice. The highest level of ceremony, in accordance with Halachic law, won the day. Our choice to have an Orthodox Jewish wedding ceremony brought with it a list of (Orthodox Jewish) pre-nuptial requirements. For me, these ancient laws often raise contemporary questions, and the answers are not always within my feminist comfort zone, particularly as concerns the ‘laws of family purity’. Central to these laws is the ritual of ‘mikveh’, a traditional Jewish bath used by women for monthly purification, and by both genders to mark other life events. Coming from a tradition of Conservative Judaism, (as well as coming-of-age in the ‘60s, when women celebrated body cycles as free and natural, rather than ‘impure’), I had never been to the mikveh. This would definitely require some mental gymnastics on my part.

How to deal with ‘the mikveh and me’? Even for a post-menopausal woman, the mikveh was a requirement. My fiancé’s Orthodox rabbi encouraged me to perform this ritual before our wedding, and having his longtime rabbi perform our ceremony was important to him. So I had agreed!  The decision was made a bit easier because a visit to the mikveh had somehow made it onto my bucket list, if only to satisfy my curiosity. Yes, inquiring minds do need to know!

First step was to meet with the rabbanit (rabbi’s wife) for counseling on the traditional obligations of a Jewish bride.  As I have only admiration and respect for Rabbanit Batya, this was not a chore.  She is a strong, independent woman who balances a professional life in business, while still performing admirably as mother, wife and community leader — no mean feat for an Orthodox woman!

Since I could already claim many years of successful marriage, Batya sensibly suggested that one session might be sufficient. We discussed interpretations of the laws of family purity, and while I bit my tongue on occasion, there were not enough of these moments to draw blood! She also instructed me about how to prepare for this immersion ritual (short clean nails, no nail polish, washed hair combed through, etc…). and mentioned that a woman’s time in the mikveh was also her own time, a spiritual moment with her own private thoughts.

Well, if I was to perform the ritual of mikveh (even this once), I should embrace the ritual, and find my own meaning within it. But how could I make it my own? When in doubt, I seek the wise counsel of ‘Bubbie Google’, and she did not let me down. My search words (mikveh /wedding /feminist interpretation /creative /new rituals) revealed that a plethora of creative practices have evolved. I read about ‘rethinking mikveh’, ‘sanctifying waters’, the case of Rachel Adler, the ‘pluralistic mikveh’ of Mayim Hayim, the ‘bridal mikveh’, and new prayers and ceremonies that have developed as women reframe their mikveh rituals.

Even Flare magazine printed an article proclaiming that “A new generation of Jewish women is reclaiming the mikvah, subverting the controversial purification ritual into a tool of modern transformation.”  (Jennifer Goldberg, Flare, Oct 29, 2013)

“Modern transformation”… I liked the sound of that. Yes, I began to see how I could infuse meaningful elements from my own life into the mikveh experience by framing this visit as a women’s ritual. I began to reflect on the special women who had impacted my own life. Why not bring them along! Well, not literally as some were far away, others deceased, but they could be with me in spirit. I already bear the name of my maternal grandmother ‘Sarah’ so she would immerse with me. I gathered framed photos of two great-grandmothers, the one grandmother I knew, my dearly-missed mother, and my two sisters. Then I thought about the men who had helped me grow as a woman and a mother: my adored father, my late husband, and my three sons. More photos, and three candles — one for each birth.  A bouquet of beautiful flowers completed my ‘installation’. Finally I printed out my favorite Leonard Cohen poem, ‘Anthem’, which often serves as my mantra for living through the tough times. I even set the iPhone to his song version.

Cohen’s words speak to me about starting afresh, moving forward, coming to love despite the wounds of loss, and letting the light into my life. Yes, I can ‘ring the bells’!

The birds they sang

At the break of day

Start again

I heard them say

Don’t dwell on what

Has passed away

Or what is yet to be….

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

And so I felt ready to experience my own Bridal Mikveh, an immersion to mark this transformation in my own life journey. I set out the photos of my special women, then the family photos that include the men. Flowers were propped nearby, and the three candles lit. In the mikveh, I submerged, just as generations of Jewish women have done before me, and recited the Hebrew blessing for this occasion. Two more submersions (plus one for good luck), and the requirements were met. Batya asked if I wanted some private time and I did. At my request, she dimmed the lights, turned on my iPod, and left me to my thoughts. The candles flickered, Leonard Cohen began to sing his Anthem, and in this peaceful moment I gave thanks to all the wonderful women who are part of who I am today, and then expanded the circle of love to include the men. It was a moment of pure spirituality. My life is truly filled with blessings.

But what of this new man who has captured my heart? The decision to march forward to a new marriage does not eliminate the loss of a first spouse — both Abraham and I come with our ‘refugee’ burdens — but our hearts are now lighter. Love expands the heart, it has no need to ‘downsize’ or purge past memories. We are so much more than the sum of these parts. There is room to build new relationships. Both of us have come to love, and we can embrace a future together. And that’s how the light gets in! For that I give thanks.

You can add up the parts

But you won’t have the sum

You can strike up the march,

There is no drum

Every heart, every heart

To love will come

But like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

(Leonard Cohen, Anthem, 1980s)

Remember how a pebble tossed into the water creates a flow of ever-expanding circles? To complete my mikveh/water ritual, I want to widen the circle to include more special women.  I am fortunate to have many wonderful women in my life, and I count them as friends. At some point, they each impacted my life, and many continue to do so today. And so I share this reflection to bring them into the experience.

This comes with love and light and heartfelt thanks for helping me ‘ring the bells’ even when my world was cracked.

About the Author
Rabbanit Batya Friedman is the senior rebbetzin of Hamsptead Suburb Garden Synagogue in London, UK. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Brooklyn College and her MBA from the University of Alberta. She previously served the community in Edmonton, AB Canada.
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