By Rabbi Gila Caine
(AJNews) – Edmonton’s Jews need a community mikveh. This is a “women’s issue,” but also very much a community issue, and it is about time we brought ourselves together to make sure we have one here in the city.
A Mikveh, or rather Mikveh mayim, is a place where water pools and becomes a well or a lake. A Mikveh taharah (purification pool) is a ritual bath. In it we perform ceremonies of purification and transformation, moving ourselves from one state of being to another (be it a bride and groom before their wedding, a person before Yom Kippur, or a woman ending one month’s menstrual cycle and entering the next). It isn’t a communal bath/shower, but rather a particularly Jewish space in the same way that synagogues and Jewish schools are centres of the Jewish community.
The importance of the Mikveh lies in the natural flowing waters which gather there, how it allows us to come into contact with this fresh water, and in our ability to immerse ourselves into this primal, quenching element. In Rabbinic thought, Torah is like water in that it purifies and is everlasting. When we dip into water, we allow ourselves to return to the mysterious depths of our being, to the very beginning of our existence. And when we emerge from it, we are renewed. If you have never had an opportunity to immerse in a mikveh, you really should try it and experience the many ways in which this ritual can work on your being.
There may be evidence of mikvaot (pl.) being used for ritual in Eretz Yisrael as far back as the First Temple period, but it’s from the Second Temple period (circa 516 BCE–70 CE) that we find archeological evidence of ritual mikveh “pools” around the land. And although Jewish communities around the world and throughout time often used a local river or beach for “mikveh” purposes, the presence of an intentionally built mikveh is one of the hallmarks of Jewish settlement from the Second Temple period onward.
Immersion in a mikveh was established as a ritual for both sexes during Temple times, as people needed to purify themselves before entering the sacred grounds of the Mikdash (Temple). But after the destruction of the Mikdash, only women continued to use immersion as an halachically binding ritual, to cleanse themselves after menstruation or childbirth. Of course, immersion is an obligatory part of conversion to Judaism, but ongoing/cyclical immersion was and still is part of adult practice for many Jewish women who have access to a mikveh. And contrary to some popular opinion, the obligation to immerse was not seen by many women as coercion, but rather in many communities over time and around the world the mikveh space was a locus of communal and private ritual by women, for women.
As women began entering what had previously been the “men’s side” of Jewish life, as they began being counted for minyan, and took on the roles of rabbi, cantor, and president, our “women’s spaces” grew smaller. This was of course natural, as the whole community was intent on coming together in one space and as egalitarian Judaism made it possible for everyone to worship and celebrate together. But in a sense, we women were all invited to “join in” the masculine version of our culture and tradition. This echoes in many ways the overarching process of the past century in the Western world, in our society and homes – mass forgetting of the knowledge and practices that women held and imparted to society. And while I think it was a critical step in the creation of a more inclusive and open society, it was not without its losses, some of which we will need to re-balance and heal in the coming generations.
The egalitarian process which we only lightly touched on here, and which is actually much deeper and more complex than can be outlined in this short essay, is one of the reasons we’ve arrived at a situation in which our community lacks access to a pillar of Jewish life. The fact that non-Orthodox communities don’t have a mikveh arises from the sad truth that for a few generations we didn’t regard our matriarchal heritage, culture, tradition, even halacha, in the same way that we regarded our patriarchal tradition. Sadly, we came to understand women’s traditions as less central and important, less binding, than those we saw on the men’s side of shul and community. And this has been to the detriment of our whole community. We are losing large chunks of our culture and should now make an effort to retrieve it.
A source of inspiration to the creativity we can find in a contemporary mikveh is the Mayyim Hayyim community mikveh in Boston, which describes itself as “an intimate center for spirituality, learning, celebration and community.” This unique space offers a place for women observing traditional immersion during their menstrual cycle, and immersion for conversion purposes. But it is also a place for immersion as part of healing from trauma, a place to immerse before life-cycle celebrations, and so on. Go and read. More of these places are being imagined and developed around the Jewish world.
We want our Jewish community grow, flourish and regain its freshness and vitality. For that to happen, we need to replenish its living waters and create a mikveh that is open for all Jews in this city. This is the Torah of our mothers.
Rabbi Gila Caine is the Spiritual Leader at Temple Beth Ora in Edmonton.