Rising from the Ritual Bath

Reimagining the traditional practice of immersing in the mikveh.

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Adler's two articles represent the poles of Jewish women's experience regarding mikveh. From an uncritical acceptance of the ancient laws, Adler moved to an utter rejection of them, expressing the desire to re-imagine the entire Jewish definition of purity. Yet in her later article Adler praises the new and creative uses of mikveh that women have developed in recent years. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein trumpets creative approaches to the mikveh as a way of fundamentally altering the ritual's impact: "We reject its principal import as a tool of marriage and we open up other avenues for meaning...dip on Rosh Chodesh (the new moon)...open the mikveh during the day... turn the mikveh into a Jewish women's learning center...." (Goldstein, Elyse. ReVisions: Seeing Torah Through a Feminist Lens. Key Porter Books, 1998, p. 127-128). The alternative uses of mikveh that women and men have invented clearly play a role, for both traditional and non-traditional Jews, in redefining what mikveh means to the Jewish community.

Creative Practices

How have Jewish ritual-makers reconstructed the practice of mikveh in new ways? Elyse Goldstein's early article "Take Back the Waters," published in Lilith in 1986 (vol. 15), was one of the first voices that trumpeted mikveh not as an agent of repurification after menstruation, but as a ritual of rebirth during both joyful and difficult times. Goldstein and others pointed out that the ritual bath, traditionally an agent of cleansing and changing, could be used to mourn a miscarriage, recover from a rape, or seek healing from an illness. Women rabbinical students could immerse in a mikveh to celebrate ordination. Women could use mikveh as men had traditionally used it, to welcome the Sabbath or prepare for the High Holidays. The options were limitless. While for some Jews these options were additions to the traditional ritual, for others, these new practices replaced the menstruation-related uses of the mikveh.

Now many Jewish feminist ritual-makers have composed new prayers and ceremonies using mikveh as a spiritual symbol of rebirth or renewal. Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Rabbi Vicki Hollander, and others have written new ceremonies that use mikveh for creative healing or transitional rituals (A Breath of Life, p. 137). Others use mikveh to mark periods of mourning death, divorce, or other traumas. Laura Levitt and Sue Ann Wasserstein movingly recount an immersion ritual meant to heal a woman after the trauma of rape (in Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality, ed. Ellen Umansky and Dianne Ashton, Beacon Press, 1992, p. 321-326). Some people also use mikveh as the center of a covenanting ceremony for baby girls, connecting the flowing waters with the new baby girl's potential for creativity and life-giving (Fishman, Sylvia Barack. A Breath of Life: Feminism in the American Jewish Community, Brandeis University Press, 1993, p. 125). Arthur Waskow and Phyllis Berman write in their life-cycle book A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2002) that mikveh "might provide the pool of meaning through which a baby girl enters the covenant" (p. 24). And some have written new prayers to focus the soul during immersion (Rose, Carol. "Introduction to Kavvanot for the mikveh." Worlds of Jewish Prayer: A Festschrift in Honor of Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi. Eds. Shohama Harris-Wiener and Jonathan Omer-Man. Jason Aronson, 1993).

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Rabbi Jill Hammer

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is an author, educator, midrashist, myth-weaver, and ritualist. She is director of Tel Shemesh, a website celebrating Jewish earth-based traditions, and co-founder of Kohenet: The Hebrew Priestess Institute. She is the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women (Jewish Publication Society, 2001) and The Jewish Book of Days (Jewish Publication Society, 2006).