by Cara Rock-Singer, Mayyim Hayyim Intern
A couple weeks ago, I sat in on a class at Mayyim Hayyim. Joy Ladin, a professor of English at Yeshiva University had brought a class of high school students from the Genesis high school program she was teaching at Brandeis, called, “Investigating Gender, Sexuality and Society.” Our Associate Director of Education, Leeza, focused the program on exploring the issues of identity, inclusivity and boundaries that arise at the mikveh and the surrounding Jewish community within which it exists.
Leeza introduced a distinction between status and identity, drawing a parallel between religion and gender. When we began the class, everyone had introduced themselves by name and said which personal pronouns they preferred. Leeza explained, “I identify as she/her and I hope that people respect that. On the other hand, issues of status aren’t entirely up to us as individuals, such as who is a Jew or who is tamei or tahor,” (ritually unready/ritually ready). Joy added, “status here isn’t about social status but about about how people view us in community based on more or less agreed upon ideas.” There are many status distinctions that we draw on in Judaism, and the students named a wide range of them; kosher/not kosher), good/evil, Israel/diaspora, Jews/non-Jews, single/married, Shabbat/week, and modest/immodest. Leeza explained that the discussion has been shifting from status to identity, meaning that people are pushing to define themselves as opposed to being defined by others. “The mehitza, the barrier used to separate genders during prayer,” one student added. This physical division distinguishes people in a binary way, from the point of view of the community, regardless of one’s own personal gender identity.
This kind of binary reflects what A. Fox recently wrote in a post on this blog about their experience growing up in a Conservative Jewish community. A. Fox expressed their relief to find a mikveh that celebrated all kinds of gender identities and transitions. While this is certainly true, and part of the mission of Mayyim Hayyim, there is still plenty of binary thinking in the mikveh itself. Take for example the body of the mikveh, outlined in Leviticus 11:36. It must conform to binary categories: it can either be a pit or a spring, and a pit cannot have spring-like qualities, like flowing.
Binaries create messiness, and have since the Biblical times, Joy explained, invoking the Exodus as a prime example. Many non-Jews left Egypt with the Jews, but much of Jewish law since then has insisted that only Jews are allowed to be part of various communal religious experiences. The mark of a Jew, (for men, at least) is circumcision. Joy argued, “nature and human nature have no sharp edges but when we create distinctions it can cause someone to bleed, and that fact calls for compassion.”
Cara Rock-Singer is an intern at Mayyim Hayyim and a Ph.D. Candidate in the Religion Department at Columbia University. She is currently writing a dissertation on Jewish women’s authority over their own bodies through ritual and medicine.