Where’s the Ritual?

This post is part of a series of blog posts about niddah entitled Sacred Bodies, Sacred Time.  Read more here – and submit your own post.

by Rachel LiebermanRachel Lieberman

Before I had my first mikveh experience, I was forewarned- “Don’t be disoriented. When you get to the preparation room, there will just be a list of body parts, not a list of instructions. Use these kavanot from Mayyim Hayyim as scaffolding to structure your preparation.” It was good advice.

I was a bit shocked to find that there isn’t more prescribed ritual to the preparation—no specific order of operations like we learned in elementary school math, or like the highly ritualized Pesach seder. For my first immersion, I found the preparation room daunting, because I was anxious about the physicality of the ritual. I wanted to get it right, to pass, and with no specific list of instructions and without anyone to mimic, how could I be assured that I would do it all correctly?

By design, mikveh preparation is a solitary, even secretive act. No one else performs or models the steps for you. In the preparation room, there is no opportunity for mimesis. There is no one to watch, no one to learn the ritualized steps from, and no one to correct your performance in the moment. You’re on your own.

I wondered, why isn’t there an intense, rigid, prescribed, ritualized order of operations? After all – the majority of the other components to this experience are traditionally highly ritualized and exacting for women. Traditional requirements for women to immerse in the mikveh include: a certain marital status, a specific point in your menstrual cycle, a minimum number of minutes after sunset, a regular frequency of immersions, and a particular reason for immersion.

Given all of these parameters, perhaps it’s better to have some flexibility in the preparation room. An absence of a ritualized order to the preparation allows for breathing room, individuality and creativity. It allows for a structure where we can create our own rituals, without other people’s words in our mouths, meditations in our thoughts, or gazes on our bodies.

As I became more comfortable with mikveh—both the preparation and the immersion—I gave myself permission to fill this void and to create my own rhythms and rituals.

Hang up your coat. Unzip your boots. Take off your jewelry and place it on the tray (conspicuously! So you don’t forget it when you leave!), Take out your toiletry bag, kavanot and poem from your purse. Put away your phone. Put the shampoo and towel by the bathtub. Sit down on the bench, look in the mirror, smile and take a few deep breaths.

I’ve given myself permission to take my time preparing physically and mentally (another favorite piece of advice is: “Don’t feel like you have to rush, no one is going to kick you out of the room.”), to think about the past month, and the upcoming month. I’ve also given myself permission to not think of the mikveh as a momentous marker each month. Sometimes there is significance to the distinction between months, and sometimes I’m in a bad mood or in a rush. Familiarity breeds its own form of comfort and ritual. I am learning to embrace the flexibility of the order of operations, to create my own rituals, particular to my own monthly experiences, to allow my kavanot (intentions) to be fluid and forgiving like the water.

Rachel Lieberman is the Program Director at JOFA. She has studied at Princeton University, Yeshivat Hadar, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. At Princeton, she earned a B.A. in Religion and a certificate in Judaic Studies. Her senior thesis, “Reaching Across the Mechitzah: Feminism’s Impact on Orthodox Judaism” was awarded the Isidore and Helen Sacks Memorial Prize in Religion for outstanding work in Judaic Studies.


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