Water is a ubiquitous and potent symbol. It can mean life, from irrigation to amniotic fluid; it can mean physical healing or inner cleansing, as in the literal or symbolical cleaning of a wound; it can mean movement, as in the currents of a river or the tides of the ocean.
It makes sense, then, that water makes regular appearances in Judaism, in biblical stories like Noah’s ark, the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the River Jordan.
But one of the most emotionally loaded associations between Judaism and water is the mikvah, a ritual bath that married women are commanded to immerse in monthly following their menstrual periods before they may resume physical contact with their husbands.
Outside of Orthodox circles, mikvah and the accompanying taharat ha-mishpachah, or laws of family purity, have rarely been observed in large numbers. But a new movement wants to reclaim the symbolism and meaning of mikvah for a pluralistic Jewish community.
The most closely watched of the nationwide efforts to bring mikvah into the lives of women who might never have considered going is Mayyim Hayyim, an interdenominational community mikvah and education center in Newton, Mass. Mayyim Hayyim is Hebrew for “living waters” (and bears no relation to the Brooklyn soft drink of the same name).
The brainchild of “The Red Tent” author Anita Diamant and Reconstructionist Rabbi Barbara Penzner, and the result of three years of outreach and fundraising, Mayyim Hayyim, which opens early this month, expects to attend to women and men who are either converting to Judaism or observing conventional mikvah traditions.
Mayyim Hayyim also expects that the people coming through its doors will immerse in the warm water to mark other life transitions — from miscarriage to divorce, from being declared cancer-free to beginning a new job, from leaving home for college to ending an abusive relationship.
Mayyim Hayyim began when Diamant, as the outreach chair of her Reform congregation, discovered that it was often difficult for a woman trained by a non-Orthodox rabbi to find a mikvah for her conversion immersion.
“We in the 21st century should be offering a different kind of welcome to people who were making this extraordinary decision to become Jewish,” said Diamant, whose 1997 book, “Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for their Family and Friends,” detailed the conversion experience, including the requirement that a convert immerse to symbolize the beginning of his or her new life as a Jew.
Indeed, of the more than 70 appointments that have already been scheduled at Mayyim Hayyim between now and September, almost all are for conversions, Diamant said. Other liberal mikvahs have also found that conversion is the most common use among liberal Jews for the ritual.
“Most of our immersions are for conversions,” said Hilary Leboff, executive director of Shir Ami, a Reform congregation in Bucks County, Pa.
In addition to conversions, bridal immersions, a traditional ritual, will be common. Mayyim Hayyim even has a “bridal bath” scheduled — like a bridal shower, only the bride will have just come out of her immersion.
But the new mikvah will be used to mark more than just conversions and bridal celebrations.
“Water is such a powerful symbol,” said Rabbi Jill Hammer, a senior associate at Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, “The fact that this symbol is associated with women is fascinating to Jewish women.”
Making available to women a ritual that was once considered by many liberal Jews to be mysterious — and, with the emphasis on menstruation, even sexually controlling — is a powerful move, one that represents “a return to the traditions as a way to face the problematic world we live in,” said Rabbi Rona Shapiro, a senior associate at Ma’yan and the editor of Ritualwell.org, a Web site devoted to making rituals, including mikvah, accessible to women.
For at least 200 years, said Blu Greenberg, founding president of JOFA: The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, mikvah use “was all but moribund, considered an antiquated ritual and disconnected to their reality” for liberal Jews.
At issue for many Jewish women is the idea that during a woman’s menstrual period, she is “unclean” and prohibited from having sexual relations with — or even touching — her husband.
But Greenberg says that the translation of the Hebrew word niddah does not mean “unclean,” but refers to the state of being sexually unavailable, which the Torah says a woman is during at least five days of menstruation and seven days after that where no menstrual bleeding can be detected.
“The overlay of language associated menstrual blood with uncleanliness,” she said, so “other than Orthodox Jews, whose strength is to be bound by the law without thinking about issues of language, all others simply dropped the observance.”
Traditionally, women wait seven days after the end of their menstrual periods before immersing in the mikvah. Immersing is done only after a detailed set of preparations that ensures that the water will flow over the entire body. No bandages, nail polish or jewelry are permitted in the mikvah.
According to the Torah’s detailed specifications, each mikvah must contain a minimum of 40 seah of water, which translates to roughly 80 gallons. Mayyim Hayyim, which has two pools that are around the size of a hot tub, fills each with about 1,200-gallons of warm tap water that is filtered and kept clean. Outside of the building sits a bor , or pit, for each pool. The bor is a repository for rainwater, and a capped pipe brings the rainwater into the pool. Only when the person immersing removes the cap and allows the regular water to “kiss” the natural rainwater does the pool become a mikvah. Mayyim Hayyim organizers believe that this act of removing the cap is symbolic.
“This is an important part of the experience, for you to create the mikvah; it’s part of the experience of taking ownership,” said Kathy Bloomfield, interim executive director and program director of Mayyim Hayyim.
For liberal and traditional Jews alike, the metaphor of immersing in water can be a perfect fit with all of life’s transitions, large or small, Mayyim Hayyim organizers say.
In the mikvah, Bloomfield said, a person acknowledges, “I was this today, and tomorrow I am going to be that,” with “that” meaning anything from a grandparent to a cancer survivor to a college graduate.
But some in the Jewish community — especially the Orthodox — see using the mikvah for uses not mandated in the Torah as a violation of its sanctity.
“A mikvah is a sacred space, and sanctity, by definition, bespeaks limits,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a leading ultra-Orthodox organization.
“Why make a public issue of one’s mikvah use? Why not keep deep private feelings private — especially when doing otherwise might offend more traditional Jews’ idea of reverence for Jewish tradition?” Shafran said.
Others in the Orthodox community are curious, if a bit skeptical, about the expansion of the use of mikvah.
Greenberg, who is the author of a book on mikvah to be published next year, says she is “ambivalent” about the concept of Mayyim Hayyim and alternative uses of mikvah in general.
“I need to get a little bit used to the idea,” she said. “It is an idea that is so new in the context of Jewish history and Jewish tradition associated with the mikvah.”
Mayyim Hayyim is certainly plunging into new areas.
In a creative expansion of mikvah use, the mikvah will be available even to schoolchildren, who will be invited to come celebrate their bar or bat mitzvahs, receiving their drivers’ licenses, or, with their parents, to mark a baby boy’s bris or a baby girl’s naming ceremony.
Mayyim Hayyim also has plans to acquire a 1,100-pound hydraulic lift so that the facility will be accessible to disabled Jews.
And men will participate in Mayyim Hayyim in innovative ways.
Traditionally, Orthodox men have immersed in a mikvah on Yom Kippur and on Friday afternoons in preparation for the Sabbath, but Mayyim Hayyim will also make the mikvah available to men who want to mark their life transitions — from becoming a grandparent, to becoming an empty-nester, to retiring from work. Like a traditional mikvah, the Friday afternoon time slot will be for men only, but other life-transition rituals will take place at times when both men and women can visit the mikvah, each led by same-gender “guides.”
“This is something new on the landscape for many people,” said Daniel Sheff, who is the co-chair of the men’s initiative at Mayyim Hayyim.
“There’s a whole slew of transitional moments in which mikvah could serve as a mark,” Sheff said, “or deepen our perception of what we’re going through.”
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer in Arlington, Mass.