Sisterhood Blog

Don't Divorce the Mitzvah from Mikveh

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

  • Print
  • Share Share

At last Sunday’s conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance there was an interesting session titled “Rediscovering Mikvah: Creating a New Construct in Thinking about Mikvah.”

Given my increasingly ambivalent relationship to my own mikveh practice, I slipped away from all the sessions on Orthodox women and leadership that I needed to attend to for my coverage of this central issue, and went for some personal inspiration.

The session was run by Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, an Orthodox Jew who is also a professional sex therapist, and featured Carrie Bornstein, the Mikveh Center director at Newton, Mass.’s Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center.

Mayyim Chayyim is a progressive place which sees it’s mandate as: “to reclaim and reinvent one of Judaism’s most ancient rituals — immersion in the mikveh — for contemporary spiritual use; to teach about this resource to all who are interested; and to make the mikveh a sacred space that is open and accessible to all Jews and those who are becoming Jews.“

In theory, a great concept. Now, a caveat: I have not personally immersed at Mayyim Hayyim, but I did attend a wonderful mikvah conference they ran a few years ago. They’re running another conference in October.

As a non-Orthodox Jew, I like the way Mayyim Hayyim reframes mikveh rituals. They have some lovely kavvanot, or intentions, available on their Web site here. Personally, I always take time after my immersion ritual, while still in the water, for personal prayer. I once heard somewhere that it is believed the heavens are open to us while we’re immersed in the mikveh, just as they are under the chuppah.

Part of Mayyim Hayyim’s focus is to make mikveh open to everyone in the community. Anyone who feels compelled to immerse in Judaism’s “living waters” should be able to do so, they believe.

But I disagree. Mikveh immersion is a commandment, an obligation, for married Jewish women and for converts, female and male, as their last step toward becoming Jewish.

At Mayyim Hayyim, like in some Chasidic communities, some men immerse before Shabbat and holidays. Rabbis, female and male, immerse on the eve of their ordinations, both men and women immerse as a way to mark personal milestones, and Bornstein talked about making it a ritual for girls as they prepare to become bat mitzvah.

I’m all for creating new rituals; I even wrote a book about one, “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.” (Jewish Lights).

I’ve brought several friends for their first visits to the mikveh before their weddings. And I also once brought a long-married friend for her first visit, for her to mark the conclusion of the month after her mother’s death with the very intimate and woman-focused ritual of immersion.

But something about the “throw open the doors approach” makes me uneasy. Because it is a mitzvah, there is something holy about a woman immersing at the right time. And Bronya Shaffer, a Lubavitch hasid and educator who came to the JOFA conference from Crown Heights gently made the point, at the session, that you really can’t separate the ritual from the mitzvah.

She’s right, and helped me realize why I find something unsettling about the much-expanded notion of using the mikvah. The discussion is divorced from the mitzvah.

Why do I go to mikvah, despite my ambivalence about it and difficulty tolerating a mikveh attendant who is almost obsessed with scrubbing out any shadow of nail polish residue lurking under a cuticle? Not just because it ties me to Jewish women back through the generations. Not just because it affords me an hour of time to reflect as I bathe and prepare to immerse, or space to pray. I feel called to go to the mikveh because I feel commanded.

This is not to say that people who are not obligated by mitzvot may not or should not do them. As Marcus pointed out in a note to me, women are not obligated to lulav and etrog on Sukkot, or for that matter to dine in the sukkah, but of course we may and should.

I feel protective of mikveh, I guess, as the only mitzvah that can only be done by a woman, and of the mikveh as women’s space. While it’s said that women have three mitzvot — lighting Shabbat candles, separating/baking challah and mikvah immersion — the first two can be done by a man if no woman is available to do it. But immersion after the cycle that is uniquely female? Ladies only for that.

I like feeling that the small Brooklyn mikveh I patronize is women’s space (at least at night; men sometimes immerse during the day). I wouldn’t be thrilled to have tweenage girls there during those evenings. There are other ways — Torah study, even ear-piercing — to mark the transition between childhood and bat mitzvah.

But mikveh, I want to keep just for us.

The truth is, I rarely feel called by commandment. But this one reaches me. And when we lose sight of the commanded aspect of mikveh, I think we also lose sight of its spiritual power.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Mikvah, Mayyim Hayyim, JOFA, Mikveh, Niddah

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.