Reposted with permission from Fresh Ideas from HBI: The Hadassah Brandeis Institute Blog
by Elana Luban
When I first heard about the annual Gilda Slifka summer intern’s trip to Mayyim Hayyim, I wasn’t quite sure what could be groundbreaking or ideologically feminist about a mikveh. My first two mikveh trips shaped my life and my Jewish identity. But since I was seven years old, I’d only been to a mikveh to kasher dishes, and the trips didn’t feel very special.
This trip was entirely different.
As a two-time convert to Judaism — I had a Conservative conversion at the age of four and an Orthodox conversion at seven, both with my mother — I realized I had not, since early childhood, come near a mikveh designated for conversion.
Years have passed since I took those life-altering steps into the clear waters of the mikveh; I have questioned and re-questioned my identity as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, turning to Modern Orthodoxy and several other branches of Judaism (along with brief periods of time doubting whether religion held any validity at all) to try to understand Judaism and my relation to it.
From the minute I entered the garden surrounding the beautiful Mayyim Hayyim building, it occurred to me that this very well might be a place that would play a part in my search for the form of Judaism that felt truest. I also realized that this was a place whose aim was to make visitors feel completely at ease, both physically and spiritually. Leeza Negelev, the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim and our guide for the day, showed us into the building, gave us a warm welcome, and sat down with us to learn about the Biblical and historical contexts of mikveh-related practices.
Although I had always known that water was a central symbol in the Torah and Judaism, it had not occurred to me that in the story of Creation, God’s presence is described as “resting over the water,” even before the rest of creation takes place. Negelev went through many other similar examples with us, demonstrating that water was always at the heart of our tradition, from wells serving as meeting places for our matriarchs and patriarchs, to Moses’ strong connection with water which finally culminates in his ability to perform the miracle resulting in our people’s freedom.
Then, first in pairs and later as a group, we went into more depth in our study of niddah and the mikveh itself. Tahara, traditionally (as well as in my own experience), has always been translated as “ritual purity” or “cleanliness,” but as Negelev explained to us, is translated at Mayyim Hayyim as “ritual readiness” since the process of niddah has nothing to do with physical cleanliness at all, but rather with the passage of time. In addition, we delved into the verses discussing “zav” and “zava” (female and male discharge) and the differences in how the text addresses men and women. Then, we studied the troubling obligation for men not to “come close” to their wives during the niddah period — the woman seeming to hold no responsibility for herself — yet the final verses state that if laws of niddah are transgressed, both the husband and wife will be “cut off from Israel.”
We discussed how different Jewish women feel empowered by mikveh rituals, seeing this commandment and this environment as a “women’s space.” Other women women feel oppressed by these laws, and still others have reclaimed this ancient custom in a way that allows them to feel spiritually invested in it. We spoke about the diverse groups of people welcome at Mayyim Hayyim, those identifying with the LGBTQIA community as well as same-sex couples who wish to access the unique spiritual opportunity that niddah offers, and we discussed the choice of some male same-sex couples to whom the biological processes requiring niddah obviously don’t apply but who recognize the unique opportunities of appreciation and rejuvenation and create symbolic niddah-times of separation.
As we learned, I had been feeling a mounting sense of inspiration, but I think it reached its peak when we entered the beautiful sunlit mikveh rooms, each containing one clear pool, with stone channels leading outside to allow rainwater to mix with the pool-water. Blue sky seeped in through skylights and large windows and gave every part of this area an airy feel. Even the texture of the wood and stone inside made the interior feel like a part of nature.
I walked up to one of sunlit pools and knelt down to touch the water. It was as clear as I wished my beliefs about Judaism could be. Flipping through the pages of the pamphlet we were given, looking at plaques and paintings on the walls, talking to the other interns about the meaning of everything we saw, I felt an old sense of spiritual connection come back again. But as often happens, old feelings don’t return unless a new depth has been added to them. For me, this new component was Mayyim Hayyim’s priority of inclusion — in their own words, petichut (one of Mayyim Hayyim’s Seven Principles): “Access and availability for all Jews and those becoming Jewish. Mayyim Hayyim strives to be inclusive of those who wish to learn and/or immerse, regardless of sexual orientation, physical/developmental ability, or background.”
I learned on this trip that Judaism can be different, it can be accepting — even in its most ancient traditions. To me, that was really important. Until recently, I had not heard the words “pluralistic” or “egalitarian” in Jewish contexts, and Mayyim Hayyim was the first place where I had heard “egalitarian” used in the context of something as fundamentally Jewish and halacha-rooted as ritual immersion. It was an important moment to realize that Mayyim Hayyim or Judaism can be accepting of anybody who wants to participate, that they are offering privacy and respect for what can be an extremely personal experience. I’m used to lots of rules — after all, that’s the kind of community I was raised in — but I got to witness the reclaiming, the taking ownership, of this one. The only thing that surprises me is that this sort of mikveh is a fairly rare phenomenon. I have no doubt that many communities, both in the United States and Israel, would benefit from experiences like the one Mayyim Hayyim has to offer.
My only hope is that I’m able to hold on to this inspiration.
Elana Luban is an HBI Gilda Slifka summer intern and a junior at Stern College for Women.