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Metzorah, Mikvehs and Healing Waters

After five years of tackling Leviticus, I wonder if I have exhausted the appealing topics contained in this week’s portion. I have talked about leprosy and how we approach the sick. I have written about the rabbinic interpretation derived from these verses and the rabbis’ counsel to refrain from gossip. What is left to discuss? Should I venture where few Reform rabbis dare go and discuss the topic I always skip over with my b’nai mitzvah students and my fellow JCB staff urged me to avoid?

In Leviticus 15:15 and following we discover the biblical basis for taharat ha-mishpachah, the family purity laws. These laws prohibit sexual relations between husband and wife during a woman’s menstrual period until after she immerses in the mikveh, ritual bath. The most important detail about the mikveh is that it must contain living waters and so mikvaot collect rain water, but a river or ocean could also do. To the ancient mind these living waters restored life after the apparent loss of life symbolized by the menstrual blood.

To be fair, the Bible also concerns itself with men’s bodily fluids. The rabbis, however, allowed this requirement to fall into disuse. Is this evidence of their sexism? Women are required to visit the mikveh to overcome their “ritual impurity.” But men? Their obligation to visit the mikveh is no longer of consequence. Do you wish to know more? I am not sure I wish to. Still, I request of you, read on. This is Torah too.

By rabbinic times the length of a woman’s “ritual impurity” had expanded to fourteen days. The rabbis added a week to be sure she was no longer menstruating and then said women, in their devotion and religiosity, had added these days. And so two weeks following the conclusion of a woman’s period she visits the ritual bath so that she and her husband are once again permitted physical intimacy. Such laws appear out of step with our contemporary sensibilities. I remain baffled as well. Why would a woman allow a man to determine when her period has ended? And yet today the mikveh is being reclaimed by liberal Jews. Is it possible to infuse these rituals with new meaning?

Part of the reclamation to be sure is that women are now the decision makers. Women are turning to each other for wisdom and counsel—and not to men. Women are deciding if and when they should visit the mikveh. The other piece to our renewed understanding is that we believe that the body’s natural processes do not render anyone unclean. And so in the liberal world the ritual bath is starting to be used by both brides and grooms, as the tradition dictates, to mark the transition to married life. It is being used, again as Jewish tradition requires, to mark the entry into Jewish life by conversion students.

I must admit, there is no more powerful and spiritual moment for me as a rabbi than standing outside the door of the mikveh and listening for the sounds of the water enveloping my conversion student’s body and then hearing the words of the blessing: “Baruch Ata Adonai…who commands us regarding immersion.” “Amen!” And then more gentle splashes. “Baruch Ata Adonai…shehechiyanu v’kiyamanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh—who gives us life, sustains us and brings us to this very moment.” Again I shout, “Amen!” And then my colleagues and I exclaim, “Mazel tov!” I hear the sounds of rejoicing and laughter and sometimes even sobs of joy. Splashes accompany the exit from the ritual bath. The water soothes. The living waters restore. Healing is uncovered.

The mikveh is finding new meaning for women struggling to overcome abuse, or to mark the conclusion of treatments for breast cancer, or to overcome the loss of a potential life after a miscarriage. Are there even more possibilities for the renewal of this ancient ritual? There is something about the power of water. It rejuvenates. It is restorative. Today we are only weeks away before we once again hear the shouts of joy accompanying our children playing in pools or splashing in the ocean’s waves. I count the days until the open water swimming season begins and I can leave doing laps in an indoor chlorinated pool behind and discover again the freedom of swimming in the waters of the Long Island Sound.

There is meaning to be found in the waters. There is power to be discerned in this ancient tradition. Perhaps the issue was never the mikveh. It was instead the decision makers. If I make the mikvah my own I can discover restoration and even rebirth at the water’s edge. The poet Denise Levertov writes: “Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsive/to action and inaction.”

And so it remains. The living waters continue to offer us more than we initially thought possible.

And that will always remain my endeavor. “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it.” (Avot 5:22)