Reinterpreting the Mikveh

Making it relevant today.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

To plunge into the mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) is to plunge into fresh connections with Creation and with our spirituality.

The Rabbis derived their laws that require an immersion in the mikveh in large measure from Leviticus (see at 12:1-8, 15:16, and 11:36). They rooted the laws in a need to purify oneself ritually after certain conditions such as menstruation, male seminal emission, certain skin diseases, or contact with the dead. Removing impurities was a precondition for coming into contact with the holy, such as in approaching the sanctuary. With the destruction of the Temple, these laws remained mandatory for women and optional for men. While traditional Jews continue to use the mikveh for "family purity," most liberal Jews rarely enter the mikveh. When they do, they often enter the mikveh for different reasons. What might prompt liberal Jews to immerse in the mikveh's waters?

Creation

The mikveh takes us back in time, as we immerse ourselves in the world of Creation. The root k-v-h that forms the word mikveh appears for the first time in Genesis (1:9): "Let the waters beneath the sky be collected [yikavu] in one place." Further, in the next verse emerges the expression mikveh bamayim, the name given to the seas, where k-v-h connotes "the gathering." This first mikveh is filled with mayim (water).
torah commentary
In the most archaic Hebrew script, the letter mem is a zigzagging line, drawn like waves that recall water. It is interesting to note that in many languages, the phoneme "m" is associated with "mother" (ima, umm, mutter, mere, madre, mama, etc.). The person who plunges into the ritual bath of the mikveh—entirely surrounded by water, nude, without any barriers, and without touching its sides-resembles the fetus in the mother's womb. The immersion in the mikveh becomes a return to the sensations of the uterus, a return to our source and an act of renewal.

You cannot know who you are without knowing whence you came. This return to what happened before is sometimes a way of softening the traumas of the past, to start anew after a difficult life experience. Conversely, sometimes it is a way to celebrate something precious in one's life or something new. The word kav means "to be strong" or "strength" in Aramaic. The return to our source reinforces us.

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Rabbi Bebe was the first woman rabbi on Continental Europe since World War II and the only woman rabbi in France until 2007. She was ordained in 1990 by the Leo Baeck College of London.