Rethinking the Meaning of Mikveh

Jews Discover New Significance in an Ancient Religious Ritual

By Jennifer Siegel

Published May 12, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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For the traditional Orthodox woman, visiting a mikveh generally serves as both a method for regulating sexual relations with a husband and a way of preparing for the possibility of pregnancy after another month in which a menstrual period came and went.

But for Conservative Jew Susan Heffron, it was both an opportunity to find closure after her so-called “eight-year pregnancy” — a time in which she endured four rounds of in-vitro fertilization, several miscarriages and the removal of a fallopian tube in an attempt to overcome infertility — and a chance to fully embrace her new life as an adoptive mother in the week before her infant daughter’s own immersion for conversion.

“Even though I was totally happy and totally thrilled, I felt there was still that whole chapter with infertility that I wanted to close,” said Heffron, 40, in a telephone interview from her home in Brookline, Mass. “It’s like you’ve been carrying this weight around with you for such a long time, and you just let it go.”

Heffron is one of a growing number of Jewish women who are reinterpreting what it means to visit the mikveh. Until fairly recently, most women from the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism either explicitly rejected, quietly ignored or were simply unaware of the rules in the Torah requiring women to undergo ritual immersion before resuming sexual relations following their menstrual periods. In recent years, however, as one more reverberation of the spirituality movement that was jumpstarted by the entrance of women into the rabbinate during the last two decades, Jewish feminists have begun to re-conceptualize the ritual. Proponents of this new approach will meet early next month in Boston for a three-day event, titled “Reclaiming Mikveh: Pouring Ancient Waters Into a Contemporary Vessel,” the first national conference on the immersion ritual.

“This is for me the extraordinary beauty of liberal Judaism… to look for ways to not only access ancient rights and rituals, but also to redefine them in ways that are meaningful in our lives,” said Rabbi Shira Joseph, the religious leader of Congregation Sha’aray Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Hingham, Mass. In the late ’90s Joseph helped establish the third Reform mikveh in the country, at Congregation Shir Ami in Newtown, Pa., where she served as an associate rabbi. Today, there are about 20 non-Orthodox mikvehs across the country, many of which opened during the past decade.

“I’m open to the possibility that there is something divine happening in that space, whether it’s the godliness from within, or the godliness externally,” Joseph said.

Heffron’s immersion took place at the two-year-old Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center, a gleaming, spa-like retreat in Newton, Mass., with abundant windows and radiantly heated stone floors.

At many Orthodox mikvehs, the immersion ritual is a strictly personal and private experience. But Mayyim Hayyim — meaning “living waters,” a reference to the fact that to be kosher, some of the water in a mikveh must come from or make contact with a natural source such as an underground spring or cistern of rainwater — seeks to be a kind of community center, with rooms for classes, meetings and celebrations as well as an art gallery. Both men and women may use the two mikvehs, which are surrounded by pocket doors that can be opened up to accommodate friends and family members — in the case of a baby’s immersion for conversion, for example — or kept closed for privacy.

According to Aliza Kline, executive director of the independent non-denominational center, there are currently about 100 to 150 immersions per month, including about 500 thus far for conversions. The most common visitors are women coming for monthly immersions, but the mikveh has been used for more than 1,000 nontraditional reasons, including immersions to mark the onset or remission of cancer, the celebration of a milestone during the recovery from an addiction and a variety of events having to do with women’s reproductive health.

The Mayyim Hayyim ritual committee has created optional prayers to address women’s fertility that are both traditional and subversive. One prayer for women’s standard monthly immersion removes the traditional references to child bearing, while others are specifically tailored to women trying to conceive naturally or through fertility treatment. There are prayers to mark abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth, and ritual committee members also will work individually with women who want to adapt the existing prayers or to address other situations.

Heffron said that this individualized approach is what drew her to Mayyim Hayyim. “I never would have considered going to an Orthodox mikveh,” she said. “It wouldn’t have felt right to me; I would have felt out of place, and my reasons for going were very personal.”

For the more than 50 volunteers who serve as the center’s mikveh “guides” — orientating visitors to the process and helping them create their own rituals — the experience is often therapeutic, as well.

Twenty-five years ago, Suzanne Hanser-Teperow suffered through three miscarriages and a stillbirth before having her three children. She mentors young mothers who are currently going through these experiences, work that she said fills a critical gap in the landscape of Jewish ritual.

She recalled how after delivering a stillborn child following 14 hours of labor, her rabbi told her: “You know what? Pretend it never happened. You don’t have to bury the child; you don’t have to say Kaddish.” She added, “Jewish life is so rich with psychologically healthy ways to mourn when we lose a close relative, [but] they don’t exist if it’s a miscarriage.”

Cookie Rosenbaum, 54, an Orthodox woman who serves as the Judaic studies principal at the Striar Hebrew Academy in Sharon, Mass., sees the virtue in both old and new approaches to the mikveh. While she serves as an attendant at the Orthodox mikveh in Sharon, she also has known the pain of infertility firsthand and is an educator at Mayyim Hayyim.

Rosenbaum is planning to invite female friends and family members to her own immersion ceremony at the center this summer — “a small type of celebration,” she said — to mark the onset of menopause and close the chapter on her infertility.

“I’m hoping to come out with an open feeling to be able to move on with my life and leave this piece of infertility behind me,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of tears that day.”

She added that if she should unexpectedly get another menstrual period after that day, necessitating another trip to the mikveh, it would not faze her. The Mayyim Hayyim ceremony is more about elevating her own unique spiritual path than it is about biology.

“There isn’t one right way to do things that happen in life,” Rosenbaum said. “I don’t think there’s one way to deal with infertility, or that there is one way to deal with men, or a lot of other things that happen in life.”

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