By Janet R.
Being an atheist has worked well for me. I’ve explored religions, never found much meaning in them, and have happily existed as a culturally Jewish non-believer. I’ve never quite understood what ‘spiritual’ means, except maybe it’s what I felt at the end of a couple of yoga classes, or while listening to some classical music. At times I’ve envied those who believe, those who can turn to a religion for meaning and comfort.
My mother’s death in September was one of those times. If only I could sit Shiva (seven-day period of mourning), or go to a service, or consult with a rabbi, or a minister for that matter. Instead, I found myself grappling to find ways to acknowledge my grief, to understand it, and to move through it. I thought maybe some structure would help, maybe a time limit. I’d give myself two months to flounder and feel and to not know what to do: after two months I wanted my life to go back to some sense of normalcy.
As it happened, a friend had given me a gift certificate for an immersion at Mayyim Hayyim several years before, on the occasion of my divorce. Of course I thanked her, while thinking to myself, ‘she really doesn’t know me that well,’ and promptly tossed it out. When my mother died, the same friend inquired whether I still had the gift certificate—maybe this would be a good time to use it? After confessing to ‘misplacing’ it, I accepted another one. And then I thought, ‘what the heck, I’ll try anything. I’m lost and confused and it can’t make it worse, right?’
No one could be more surprised than me to report the following: I decided to immerse two months (and a day) after my mother’s death and one day before my birthday. At first I obsessed a bit; did I really belong at that place? Wasn’t it a bit disingenuous? I thought about writing a ritual for the occasion but stumbled (what did I know about rituals, after all?), lost interest, and decided I’d just go and do it—whatever it was. At least I could tell my friend she’d been helpful.
It was a cold and crisp November day, with sunlight pouring in all around. My guide was thoughtful, accommodating, and made me feel like a non-believing atheist cynic was her typical and most welcome client. My new husband and I looked through the ritual material and picked a line from this one, an intention from another. We skipped over the blessings and the Hebrew.
I decided I wanted my husband rather than the guide with me as I immersed. I asked her how much time we had in the mikveh; when was the next person coming? She answered, “You have as much time as you need. We women are always worried about everyone else;-this is your time, take whatever time you want.” As it happens, I’m a psychotherapist by profession, trained to understand people’s behavior. How did this nurse practitioner/mikveh guide figure me out that quickly?
My husband read to me as I descended the stairs and immersed. In ways I find hard to describe, something very powerful happened. Something resonated within me that I haven’t found in organized religious practices. We were able to create a ritual in which I could honor my grief and come out the other side. I told a few friends about my experience and they were pleased that I’d figured out a way to create a ritual that was meaningful to me. I told my sister—who actually knows about Judaism. She quickly quipped “but that’s not what a mikveh is for!!”
But maybe it is. Maybe it is also a place for those of us who wish at times that we could, but just can’t believe. Maybe it can be a place where atheists like me can create a ritual, separate from religion, to move through the difficult passages and transformations of our complex lives.