‘The Mikveh Project’ by Lynette Sunderland

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 24 October 2019

The Festival of Sukkot begins the fifth day after Yom Kippur.  It marks quite a drastic transition from one of the most solemn holidays to one of the most joyous.  Sukkot is a holiday rich in tradition and meaning.  From the holding of the lulav and etrog to the building and sitting in our sukkah, it is filled with symbolism to express our relationship with God.  The timing is not accidental.  Only after we have reached a new level of purity and atonement on Yom Kippur can we then be truly joyous on Sukkot.

During my life time I have attended a mikveh a few times both here in England and in Israel.  On each occasion my attendance at the mikveh was prior to a transitional moment in my life and on each occasion the experience was very different.

A mikveh is a pool of water – the word means a gathering – in which one ritually immerses and purifies oneself.  The ritual of mikveh has been used by both men and women.  After the destruction of the Temple, rabbinic authorities deemed it unnecessary for men to continue with the mitzvah of immersion but women were obliged to continue as part of the mitzvot of niddah – monthly purification following menstruation.

Once the Temple was destroyed men continued to attend mikveh but it was not a time obligated ritual.  Men immerse as and when they feel the need but this might be following sexual intercourse, before and after officiating at a tahara – the ritual washing of a dead body  – or as and when they wished to make a symbolic gesture of making themselves pure both in body and mind, perhaps after conversion, or prior to Shabbat or Yom Kippur.

In a traditional setting, married women are obligated to attend mikveh.  The mikveh is also used by brides before their wedding and following conversion.

The ritual consists of washing one’s body thoroughly before immersing oneself completely three times in a mixture of mains water mixed with rain water and reciting an appropriate blessing.

Whilst this practice is carried out by many orthodox men and women as a regular ritual, it has been lost to many in the progressive community. Indeed, some women see the traditional need for mikveh as almost degrading.

Reform Judaism built a mikveh at the Sternberg Centre and this has been used in an informal way mainly by brides to be and those who have converted.  Others who are educated in the mitzvah of mikveh have also used it for other occasions.  All who have immersed have done so to make a transitional moment in their life more meaningful.

The earliest mention of mikvaot appeared in the first century BCE and there are many ancient mikvaot that have been discovered throughout the land of Israel as well as in historic communities of the Jewish diaspora.  Leviticus 15 gives very detailed explanations about when men and women should immerse and this ritual has continued throughout the generations mainly for these purposes.  However, there is a movement to reclaim this ritual in a much broader way and not just for reasons mentioned.

As part of my fact-finding trip to the States nearly two years ago, I was shown the mikveh in Boston.  Mayim Hayim – Living Waters – is an incredible model of how a mikveh can be a part of our spiritual Jewish life, for both men and women.  Moving away from the traditional sole uses for immersion – it encourages both men and women to attend mikveh at ad hoc moments of need and key life cycle moments.  Such as celebrating the bar or bat mitzvah of a child; recovery from and through serious illnesses; conversion; marriage; divorce; miscarriage; abortion, coming out, transgendering and any other defining moment in one’s life where the ritual of immersion allows a meaningful renewal and transition in a person’s life, whether they be married or single, part of a family or not.   It can be an intensely private matter or an event shared with family and friends.  The mikveh in Boston is built that you have a central atrium which has a high window into the mikveh and that whilst a person is immersing in the waters, family and friends can be assisting by reading prayers and/or singing and accompanying the person in this ritual.  You can be accompanied or you can be alone.

Mayyim Hayyim continually run educational programmes and social gatherings around the ritual and in Boston the mikveh is open and attended by those both from within the orthodox and progressive communities.

Mikveh Project UK is a recently founded organisation that has brought together a group of people from the orthodox and progressive communities in this country to try and replicate the model of the Boston mikveh.  As a Trustee of this new organisation, over the past few months I have been in discussion with both men and women on what this new model of mikveh would look like, with a view to it serving all those who wish to learn about and use such a facility as a regular part of their lives.

My personal experience of using mikvaot varied but on occasion I felt I was on a conveyor belt of women, one in, one out, reciting the relevant blessing with someone announcing you were “kosher” once I had carried out the three immersions.  At other times it was an intensely spiritual moment which afforded me a sense of calmness and renewal at a defining, transitional moment in my life.

The extensive liturgy, the sensitive space and respect for an individual’s immersion that has been created by Mayyim Hayyim shows me that the experience can be a much more meaningful one and such a ritual can enhance our lives in a special way.

No judgement is made of those who wish to learn and/or immerse and it is fully inclusive of all – regardless of sexual orientation, physical or developmental ability or background.

We at Mikveh Project UK are looking to create such a facility with the same set of values. We are presently looking to find premises to set up what we hope will eventually be an all encompassing Centre of Well Being in which the ability to immerse in the mikveh will be pivotal to what is available.  Following consultation with many present and would be users, we are taking into account their comments in order to build a mikveh for all.  If you are interested, or you are someone who has first or third hand experience of mikveh and would like to be a part of this process then please either speak to me or look at the website – Mikveh Project UK.   There is no age, ability or gender limit on potential users of the mikveh.

As many of us will know, immersion in water can have a spiritual, calming and therapeutic effect and can have huge benefits for our physical and mental well being.

Each year on Yom Kippur we seek and hopefully gain an overall sense of purity, renewal and transition and on Sukkot we value and rejoice at this.  However, there may be many more moments in our lives that need valuing and recognition in our life’s journey.

Immersion in water as part of our self renewal is an ancient ritual but one which we are looking to reclaim as part of modern life in order to give more meaning to transitional moments in our lives, whether it be occasional or as part of our regular routine.