Rising from the Ritual Bath

Reimagining the traditional practice of immersing in the mikveh.

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Some have even created spiritual "mikvaot" out of swimming pools, air, music or loving hands. The idea is to create the feel of a mikveh rather than to conform to the Jewish legal requirements of a ritual bath. Penina Adelman's Miriam's Well, a guide to Rosh Hodesh rituals, celebrates the going out of Egypt with a "mikveh of song," through which each woman passes on her way to freedom (Adelman, Penina, Miriam's Well, Biblio Press, 1986, p. 71-72). Elat Chayyim, a Jewish retreat center in Accord, NY, has same-gender group mikveh experiences before Shabbat as part of their spiritual practice, though they don't use a traditionally permissible mikveh (sometimes, they use a hot tub!).

The theology behind these new rituals, like some earlier theologies about mikveh, views the ritual bath as a way of feeling God's presence, of celebrating the feminine, or of experiencing a spiritual rebirth. Some modern writers and poets even describe mikveh as a kind of womb, a returning to God's cosmic amniotic fluid. Ruth Finer Mintz, an Israeli poet, writes to God: "We return past the cup of salt and sorrow, to You, who are wine and water," evoking both the color of menstrual blood and the flowing clarity of the mikveh ("Kiddush Levana," in Women Speak to God: The Prayers and Poems of Jewish Women, ed. Marcia Cohn Spiegel and Deborah Lipton Kremsdorf, Woman's Institute for Continuing Jewish Education, 1987). A modern immersion ceremony for brides uses an ancient biblical image in which God is a mikveh: "May the God who is mikveh Yisrael (the mikveh of Israel...be with you now and always" ("A Bridal mikveh Ceremony," by Barbara Rossman Penzener and Amy Zwiback-Levenson, in Diamant, The New Jewish Wedding, p. 157-158).

Mikveh in Contemporary Experience

The reclamation of mikveh both as a traditional ritual and as a site for new ceremonies has necessitated Jewish communal interest in mikvaot. One important new trend is the building of mikvaot by pluralistic and/or liberal communities. The mikveh at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles is one such mikveh. Mayyim Chayyim, a pluralistic mikveh conceived by Anita Diamant and others, is being built in Boston as a place where all kinds of mikveh rituals can be practiced: healing, loss, and decision making rituals as well as traditional uses. Building mikvaot under pluralistic auspices may widen women's and men's options for how and when they use the mikveh.

One of the most exciting recent developments around mikveh has been Janice Rubin's "The Mikveh Project," an art installation featuring photographs of women who use the mikveh, accompanied by their stories of ritual bath experiences. The pictures--some clothed and some nude, all anonymous--show the incredible diversity of Jewish women as well as the diversity of their ideas about purity, sexuality, spirituality, and tradition. A book containing the photographs and stories of the installation has been published as well. This widely known and hauntingly beautiful artwork shows in careful detail the love, ambivalence, anger, and longing many Jewish women feel toward the ritual bath.

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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).