by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
Religious pluralism is a fairly new idea. Even in the most well-intentioned pluralistic spaces we are still learning how to honor seemingly contradictory religious needs. Part of cultivating that respect means having an honest conversation that welcomes differing points of view.
That is just the first step. For example, what happens when you have 10 friends who want to pray together, 4 of which want a mechitza, a barrier separating men and women, 6 don’t, and everyone want to make a minyan? What starts off as a neutral religious need can easily lead to feelings of being left out or disrespected. Another prevalent challenge is when we push up against halacha, the Jewish legal tradition. It has been over 1600 years since we’ve had one centralized authoritative legal body, the Sanhendrin, but that hasn’t stopped individuals and communities from claiming there is a right and wrong way to live Jewishly. In a world that increasingly provides opportunities for cross-pollination and pluralism, what do we do with these competing beliefs and temperaments?
Recently, after seeing a comment from one of our readers on the content of a recent Mayyim Hayyim blog post, I decided that I wanted to use it as an opportunity to explore the highly contentious topic of Jewish law.
The blog post we shared was from woman discussing a difficult experience she had while practicing niddah, monthly immersion. You can read it in full here, but the short of it is that as a result of the humiliation she felt while following a halachic process, she decided to abandon the practice of immersing monthly.
The comment we saw in the response was as follows:
“I take offense with Mayyim Hayyim posting stories like this- stories that stand in direct contradiction to our tradition and laws as Jews. I first used Mayyim Hayyim for my conversion, and I have continued to be a supporter of this mikveh. However, I feel like articles that disregard the halachot (laws) regarding immersions (I think I remember an article about a woman wanting to keep her hair braided in the mikveh), or articles like this, where someone explains why they decided to stop observing the laws of family purity is highly offensive. You’re a mikveh for heaven’s sake! Shall we have the kosher grocery store posting articles on its Facebook page about shoppers who decided to go out and buy ham? I don’t want to read about Nina’s experience of deciding that she’s going to abandon observance of the laws of family purity on the mikveh’s Facebook page…”
We responded: “Thanks for your comments on this thought-provoking piece. This gets to the heart of one of our seven principles – ahavat yisrael – where we as an organization honor and cherish the differences among us, and provide a space for Jews to practice the ritual of immersion (or not) according to their interpretation and understanding. Which raises yet another question: is it the obligation of a community-based Jewish organization to uphold or even mandate the adherence to Jewish law for all?”
Our response gives context for the way we value each individual’s right to decide how to live Jewishly. Still, one element of the blog comment has continued to nag at me. The part that cites “our tradition and laws as Jews.” The phrase seems to imply that the rulings of traditional Orthodox Judaism are an unquestionable norm and therefore binding on all of us.
Beyond the fact that Mayyim Hayyim is a non-denominational mikveh, there is also an historical reality that we have hundreds of recorded precedents for contradicting previously held halachic opinions. It seems to me a fundamental part of our endurance as a religion. From the time when the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE, the tannaim, the rabbis of the mishna (our redacted oral tradition) established how our religion would evolve without a central location for so many of our day to day ritual needs —to this very day when each movement within Judaism issues teshuvot (responsa literature addressing new halachic questions and re-evaluating old practices).
The practice in question here, niddah, and related purity laws in general, have undergone so many changes over the last two thousand years that an Israelite woman, a medieval woman, and a contemporary Orthodox woman would have three vastly different ideas of the ‘correct’ way to practice. To give another example, the term ‘family purity’ is a 19th century invention. It came on the scene at a time when niddah was fading out of practice, and colludes with superstition that adhering to these laws avoids unwanted deformities in children.
The brilliance of our tradition of interpretation is that it declares that all of these teachings were given to Moshe at Sinai. This doesn’t change the fact that without the contributions of an evolving morality, the many diaspora experiences of our ancestors, and our love of debate, we would not have the overwhelming diversity of legal sources that we have today. Even with our diversity of sources to turn to, many voices have been historically shut out of the conversation. Can we truly refer to halachot as normative or representative of a majority opinion, if that majority has excluded the voices of women, Jews of color, GLBTQ Jews, Jews with physical and mental differences, and those who have recently chosen Judaism?
In the same way the internet has radically democratized information, Mayyim Hayyim’s blog gives a platform to the experience of those engaged in daily Jewish practice and thought. Today, responsa literature is being created outside the walls of institutions, on blogs, in books, on Facebook and beyond. Who knows, perhaps the threat of an unstable internet will one day cause some dedicated individuals to redact our internet commentary into physical form, much the way our oral tradition was committed to writing during civil unrest in 200 CE.
Mayyim Hayyim is a Jewish organization that is deeply embedded in our traditions and laws, and at the same time, committed to including the voices of those communities who have been pushed out of this tradition. Our organization thrives on the knowledge that these things we call ‘our traditions’ — lighting candles, saying Kiddush, immersing in a mikveh before Yom Kippur —are actually religious innovations, repeated for so many centuries that to us they look calcified and unchanging. Perhaps that is why our oldest legal text after the Torah, the mishna, literally means repetition, and comes from the word shanah, or year. Back then, when a student heard a new teaching they repeated it until it was committed to memory. Halacha, the path, was embodied by each person who carried the teachings with them wherever they went.
May it be that way for us: year after year, we’ll share more voices, more stories of halachic discovery, and new ways to experience ritual. The boundaries of what we know will stretch and give, and as they do, our sense of what is possible will grow, as it has since our Torah was given to Moshe at Sinai.
Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim. She loves the challenge of religious pluralism.