Part 2: Mikveh as Metaphor

Image: Photo of the community mikveh at Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, CA. This is the mikveh where I became a Jew. (Ruth Adar, 2006)

In Mikveh Part 1: What is it? I described the mikveh in prosaic terms: what it is and when we use it. In this part, I will introduce the important matter of the meaning of the mikveh.

For every ritual, there is an exterior reason and an interior experience. The exterior reason for many things in Jewish life is halakhah: “this is the Jewish WAY of doing things” or “this is what we understand ourselves to have been commanded to do.” We hang a mezuzah on the doorpost a particular way. We circumcise our sons at eight days of age. As I said in the earlier post, we use the mikveh for conversion, as part of the rituals surrounding sex and bodily emissions, for the purification of new cooking vessels, and for spiritual practices connected with holidays and significant life events.

The meaning of the mikveh, as with any other ritual experience, goes far beyond “what” and “why.” It extends into the interior experiences of the participants and the sense they make of those experiences. Some of those experiences are intellectual, but many of them are sensory. Many may be difficult to put into words. Some shape themselves into metaphor.

I’m going to limit myself to talking about mikveh for conversion in this article, but with the note that all its uses are interconnected and inform each other.

Strangeness: Candidates prepare for immersion by showering off, combing their hair, and removing anything that might get between them and the water. This usually happens in a room adjacent to the mikveh. The immediate impression is of going into the restroom at the synagogue, but then abruptly deviates from the norm. We do not normally walk into the restroom at shul and strip. There is not usually a grooming “to do” list on the wall. We have entered liminal space: there is nothing normal about this. Depending on the preparation the candidate has had for this ritual, the strangeness may engender anything from a feeling of being slightly off balance to a mild panic.

Nakedness: We go naked to the mikveh. This calls up the metaphor of birth, but it also speaks to the vulnerability of the convert. Even more than on Yom Kippur, we have to shed all masks to enter the mikveh: no clothing, no eye glasses, no hearing aids, no wedding ring, no jewelry, no fingernail polish, no “extras” that can reasonably be removed. Hair is washed and combed out beforehand. We enter the mikveh completely unadorned. I recall being acutely aware that the beit din (rabbi/witnesses) outside the door were all fully clothed.

Modesty: In order to deal with nakedness while remaining modest, everyone’s behavior alters. The candidate usually gets into the water before the witness enters, then calls out “ready!” The witness enters, looking at the ceiling, or a book, and will only look directly at the candidate when they are fully immersed, to certify that the immersion is total. This, too, may feel awkward to the candidate, whether they are embarrassed to be naked or not. Again, we are reminded that we are in liminal space, the space between Jewish and not-Jewish, born and not-yet-born.

Steps: The mikveh has steps going down into the water. It may look, to some eyes, like a stairway to nowhere. The candidate has been on a journey for a long time, a journey to this place, this moment. It is a stairway to a place we cannot see but for which the heart longs. As we walk down the steps, we gradually experience the feeling of the water.

Buoyancy: Our experience of gravity is altered by the mikveh because water is buoyant. This may be an exhilarating feeling, or a relief; it may be unnerving or even frightening. It puts some candidates off balance, heightening the sense of vulnerability. Buoyancy also may make total immersion tricky – in a natural body of water with salt water, total immersion may even require effort.

Temperature: In a modern indoor mikveh, the water is usually heated and may feel quite spa-like. Some candidates describe this feeling as womb-like, comforting, relaxing. If it is a natural body of water, or there is no heat, then the water may be bracingly cold, even uncomfortable. A cold mikveh reminds us that this water is not our natural element, and may introduce a feeling of danger.

Death: Water is not the natural element of human beings, no matter how well they swim. If we breathe water, we will die. The candidate for conversion is making a change of identity, which is like a little death and a rebirth. The candidate is required to be completely immersed, every hair, every fingertip: it is a statement of total commitment and nothing less. They must be “all in” for this transformation. For some candidates, for whom water is a frightening element, this aspect of the experience is all too real.

Rebirth: The waters of the mikveh, mayyim hayyim, “living water,” is often likened to the amniotic fluid in the womb. When a candidate for conversion immerses in the mikveh, it is as if they are returning to the womb, and when they emerge, it is a new birth into a new Jewish identity. Certainly, there are elements of the old self – the whole body! – but a new Jew is born.

Emergence: From the moment the new Jew ascends the stairs of the mikveh, they are part of Am Yisrael forever. Just as we make aliyah (“go up”) when we immigrate to the Land of Israel, and when we go up to chant Torah or its blessings, the candidate ascends to their Jewish life, a life full of the joys and the responsibilities of Torah.

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Mikveh, Part 1: What is it?

Image: Mikveh sign at the Congregation of Georgian Jews, a Georgian-Jewish Orthodox synagogue in Forest Hills, Queens, New York City. (By Bohemian Baltimore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The purpose of the mikveh is not physical cleanliness, although a properly maintained mikveh is always clean. The purpose is twofold: a ritual purification, and the physical experience of immersion in water as part of a ritual. For more about Jewish ritual purification, or taharah, see Clean and Unclean: A Primer. Taharah is an ancient concept that often feels awkward in modern life, especially since much of it is theoretical, since without a standing Temple in Jerusalem, true ritual purity is an impossibility.

A mikveh is a pool of water used for several different ritual purposes in Jewish life. Immersion (tevilah) in the mikveh is employed:

  • For conversion
  • For niddah, also called the laws of family purity
  • For the purification of new cooking vessels
  • As a spiritual practice before holidays (e.g., Shabbat or Yom Kippur)
  • As a spiritual practice marking major life transitions

Without a mikveh, halakhic conversions cannot take place, adoptions are held up, Jews who observe the laws of niddah cannot have sex, new cooking pots cannot be used, and many of the spiritual needs of a Jewish community cannot be met. Mikva’ot (the plural) are essential to Jewish living, even though many less observant Jews go through their entire lives without ever visiting one.

For a more poetic, mystical view of the mikveh, see the next post: Mikveh Part 2: Mikveh as Metaphor.

Mikva’ot are complex and expensive to build and to maintain. Roughly speaking, a mikveh must contain enough water to allow immersion (tevilah) of an adult human being. A specific portion of that water must be mayyim hayyim (“living water”) meaning that it meets traditional standards for having come from a natural source such as rainwater or a natural body of water. (For specifics, the website mikveh.org offers lot of detailed information on mikveh construction.)

A natural body of water can also serve as a mikveh. An ocean or a lake can serve as a mikveh; a stream can serve as a kosher mikveh provided some technical standards are met. There are challenges to using a natural body of water for a mikveh including modesty, safety and comfort. Therefore Jewish communities worldwide have put a priority on constructing indoor mikva’ot that meet the ritual standards.

The mikveh below is an ancient natural spring water mikveh in Israel known as the Mikveh of Shemaya and Avtalyon, two sages of the 1st century BCE. According to the tradition Shemaya used to immerse in this mikveh. For more about Shemaya and Avtalyon, see Advice from our Uncles elsewhere on this blog.

What is Hakafah?

Image: Hakafah in the 19th Century in Italy. Painting: The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, Italy. By Solomon Hart (1806-1881) via Wikimedia.

“During Hakafah, people may reach out to touch the Sefer Torah.”

If that sentence means bobkes (Yiddish for “nothing”) to you, that’s OK — that’s what this post is about!

As I wrote in an earlier post, Sefer Torah is the Hebrew word for the Torah scroll.

Hakafah is a Hebrew word meaning “to go around” or “orbit.” In Jewish services, it most often refers to the procession in which the Torah scroll is carried around the congregation so that people can celebrate and interact with the Torah scroll.

If you are in a service, for instance a bar or bat mitzvah service, the person who is being called to the Torah for the first time (the bar or bat mitzvah) may carry the scroll, in its coverings, around the congregation. People may reach out to touch the Torah scroll, either with the tzitzit (fringes) of their prayer shawls or with the spine of their prayer books. Then, after touching the scroll, they bring the fringes or the book to their lips to kiss. It is a way of showing reverence for the scroll and its contents. For some congregations, this is a regular part of the Torah service. For others, it happens only on special occasions.

For more on how we interact with Torah scrolls, see Kissing the Torah Scroll – Idolatry? elsewhere on this blog by following the link. Rabbi Barry Block wrote a wonderful sermon on The Deeper Meaning of the Hakafah which I recommend highly.

Other uses of hakafah:

  1. In a traditional wedding, the groom circles the bride seven times, orbiting around her. In an egalitarian wedding service, the bride an groom circle one another. Either way, it is proper to refer to the circling as hakafot (plural for hakafah.)
  2. At Sukkot, it is a tradition to encircle the bimah (speakers’ platform) with people bearing lulav and etrog.
  3. On Simchat Torah, many congregations get all their Torah scrolls out and dance with them.

What is a Sefer Torah?

Image: Person lifting the Sefer Torah for all to see.

Once I was in synagogue, and I heard someone refer to something that sounded like “the Safer Torah.” I was new to the Jewish world and wondered: what made that Torah safer?

The person I asked laughed a little and said, no, it’s not “SAY-fer.” The proper pronunciation is “SEH-fer,” and it means “Book.” Sefer Torah is \Hebrew for “Torah Scroll.”

The Torah is indeed a book, actually five books. When we see it in the ark or touch it during hakafah, the parade during the Torah service, it does not look like a book. It looks beautiful and mysterious, an ancient shape wrapped in precious materials. Calling it the sefer Torah reminds us that it is not really a mysterious object: it is a book! It is a book with which we are intimately familiar, our inheritance.

The Red Cow: A Feminist Interpretation

Image: A red cow. (pexel.com)

The laws of ritual purity left the daughters of Israel a problematic legacy. No matter how body-positive we may strive to be, the Torah text in Leviticus 15 tells us that the natural function of menstruation regularly render women’s bodies tum’ah, ritually problematic.* Unfortunately, in the past readers have seized upon those commandments, jumping to the conclusion that the people who inhabit those bodies (women) are problematic and perhaps lesser or more dangerous than people with bodies that don’t bleed monthly. This has given rise to folklore and rules that continue to be extremely damaging to the rights of women.

The ritual of the Red Cow in Parashat Chukat may offer a counterweight to negative attitudes toward the menstruating body. The Red Cow is distinct from other sacrifices in important ways:

  • It is a female animal, rather than a male. It is specifically an adult cow. (Mishnah Parah 1.1).
  • It is sacrificed outside the camp, rather than before the Tent of Meeting.
  • A little of its blood is sprinkled toward (but not on) the Tent of Meeting, but most of the blood is left to be burned with the Cow.
  • Shni tola’at, “crimson stuff” is also burnt with the Cow. Shni tola’at means “scarlet produced by the scale insect kermes vermilio.” The ash of this fire, when combined with mayyim chayyim (“living water”) in Numbers 19:17, produces an antidote for corpse tum’ah.

The combination of these elements: a female animal, the complete separation from the usual sacrificial site, the emphasis on blood and the color red (Red Cow, fire, “crimson stuff,”) and the use of mayyim chayyim –— the same water required for mikvaot -— suggest that the ultimate
tum’ah of death may be balanced by a ritual that makes repeated references to the menstrual process!

May we, in studying this ancient antidote to ritual impurity, be led to value the messiness of our human bodies and affirm life wherever we find it!

*For a fuller explanation of tum’ah, which is often translated “impure” or “unclean” but which has nothing to do with cleanliness, see Clean and Unclean: A primer.

Why is the Mezuzah Slanted?

Image: Mezuzah on the Zion Gate in Jerusalem (by Paul Arps, some rights reserved)

Recently I posted Why a Mezuzah? that looked at the various reasons Jews affix a mezuzah to our doorways. That gave rise to a good questions from a student in my online Intro class: Why is the mezuzah usually slanted?

It all goes back to a family debate and technical discussion. Rashi and his grandson Rabbeinu Tam disagreed about the proper way to hang a mezuzah. Rashi believed that the mezuzah should be upright, just as the Torah scroll is upright when it is properly stored in the Ark at the synagogue. Rabbenu Tam said, no! – the mezuzah should be horizontal, just as it is when it is laid on the table to read it.

We get this story from Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, the great Jewish legal writer. He writes in the Tur, his code of Jewish Law, that “careful people” will do their best to fulfill BOTH directions by placing the mezuzah on a slant. However, while that is the custom in the Ashkenazi world, Sephardim prefer to follow the ruling of Rashi and hang their mezuzot vertically.

Why a Mezuzah?

I saw a discussion on Twitter today about mezuzot. The participants were arguing about the purpose of the mezuzah: what’s it for?

They were arguing because they thought there could be only one right answer. In my opinion, there are many possible right answers but we each should know why we have chosen to perform this mitzvah!

Some possible right answers:

  • Because it is commanded in Deuteronomy 4:9
  • Because it marks a building as Jewish space
  • Because it marks my home as sacred space
  • Because it reminds us of the commandments
  • Because it reminds us of the Shema
  • Because my ancestors had one at their door
  • Because it is a Jewish tradition

Why do you fasten a mezuzah to your doorpost? Is it one of the reasons above, or something else?