As a child I used to love swimming. I wasn’t a particularly fast swimmer, I wasn’t a particularly strong swimmer, but I loved being in the water. I struggle to put it into words, but there was something special about the feeling and sensation of being surrounded by water. And I always used to enjoy diving under the surface, so that I was completely immersed; everything sounded different, it looked different and it felt great.
It is therefore hardly surprising that I have always been fascinated by the mikveh, the ritual bath used to fulfil various Jewish purification laws and ceremonies. Traditionally a mikveh would be used for conversion, prior to marriage, and in accordance with the fulfilment of various Jewish purification laws (menstruation, childbirth, etc.).
In this week’s Torah portion we read about the purification rituals associated with childbirth and leprosy. Moses informs the people that ‘When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days’ (Leviticus 12:2). And later in the portion, if leprosy is found on a person ‘when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce the person impure’ (Leviticus 13:3). In this context the focus is on the sacrifices which were brought, but in the rabbinic period the mikveh developed as the means for purification.
We modern Jews often feel alienated by this idea of ritual purity. Why should a woman’s natural biological processes cause impurity? Why does a person need to be, not just cured, but also, cleansed from leprosy?
We can reject the purity laws as outdated and irrelevant, especially for Judaism without a sacred Temple. But I do still believe that the mikveh, as a source of purification, has a lot to offer us.
I have personally been to a mikveh on four occasions. Most recently I went to a mikveh in Los Angeles twice last year; once before my wedding, and once before my rabbinic ordination. In both cases I was looking for a significant way to mark an important transition in my life. The mikveh allowed me to mark the move from man to husband and from student to Rabbi. I did not feel impure before entering and pure when I emerged, but I did feel something new.
On both occasions there was a sense of complete isolation and aloneness as I immersed myself in the water. It gave me an opportunity to prepare to become a husband and a Rabbi as an individual – embracing the choices in my life which had brought me to that point. We can spend our lives surrounded by people, and community is positive, but there are decisions and choices which we make as individuals, and which we bear individual responsibility for. The mikveh allowed me some time alone, some time in isolation, some time for self-reflection.
In ancient times the mikveh may have been used to mark the transition from impurity to purity, but for me it was a way of embracing other transitions and changes. To use a most appropriate phrase, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can reject the impurity laws, while at the same time embracing the mikveh. We can find ways to use immersion which are relevant for our lives. And we can reclaim a traditional experience in a way which is relevant and meaningful for us as modern Jews.