Rabbi Myron S. Geller serves the congregation of Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, MA, is the Director of the Gerim Institute of New England, and is a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of Conservative Judaism.
Sanctifying Waters: The Mikvah and Conservative Judaism
Ever since the days of the Bible, the use of a mikvah, or bath for spiritual purification, has been a widely practiced ritual amongst the Jewish people.
The mikvah is a natural or constructed pool of water that conforms to very precise specifications in both its minimum size and the source and characteristics of its contents. When the Jerusalem Temple still stood, immersion in the waters of a mikvah conferred ritual purity on those who had come into contact with the dead, allowing them reentry into the precincts of the sanctuary. After the Temple was destroyed, the mikvah was used primarily by three groups of people:
(1) married women following menstruation, who could resume marital relations after immersion,
(2) proselytes as part of their ceremony of conversion,
(3) those seeking a measure of spiritual uplift, particularly before the Sabbath or on the eve of festivals.
Although in the past the mikvah may have served occasionally as a bathhouse, its true significance was spiritual and ritual. After the loss of the First Temple, the Biblical prophet Ezekiel used the mikvah as a metaphor of restoration, spiritual and political. " I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes." (Ezekiel 36:25). And almost two millennia later Maimonides wrote, "Spiritual purity and impurity are based on Scriptural law and are not rationally understood categories. So too immersion after impurity. Impurity is not mud or filth that can be removed by water but is based on Scriptural law and depends entirely on human intention." (Yad, Mikvaot 11:12).
Some aspects of ritual mikvah immersion have retained their importance amongst observant Jews to this day, but the spiritual implications of mikvah are being appreciated by growing numbers also.
The practice of sexual abstinence during the period of menstruation and the use of mikvah by women several days afterwards is widely observed amongst the Orthodox because the resumption of marital relations without immersion is a particularly serious offense to halacha (Jewish law).
Conservative Judaism has largely ignored this practice in the past, but recently has begun to reevaluate its silence in this area and to consider the spiritual implications of mikvah immersion for human sexuality and for women. As Rabbi Elliot Dorff has written, "...some couples have made [sexual abstinence during menstruation followed by ritual immersion leading to a resumption of sexual relations] part of their sexual practice... some women find this to be one of the distinctly female rituals by which they can affirm their Judaism and reconnect with Jewish women through the ages... In general, these rationales, taken together, add a sense of ongoing holiness to the marital relationship."
Conservative Judaism's outreach activities have, in recent decades, resulted in increasing numbers of people seeking to convert to Judaism. The Conservative Jewish process of conversion requires candidates, after a significant period of study, to appear before a beit din, or rabbinic court, to explain their reasons for choosing Judaism and to commit themselves to live as Jews, observe the Commandments, and raise any children with whom they may be blessed in the Jewish community and faith. Male candidates are required to undergo circumcision or, if already circumcised, to have a symbolic ceremony. All converts complete the rituals of conversion by immersing themselves in a mikvah.
Jews-by-choice tend to recall the mikvah ceremony as an experience of heightened spirituality, leaving a permanent mark on their religious awareness. Some comments I have received about the mikvah include: "It made me feel closer to God," "Rich and rewarding," "An emotional highlight of my life," "Excellent experience... It was inspiring," "When I came up from the waters all was quiet, my eyes wanted to cry. My soul was still... I am still in a state of peacefulness and love fills me." "An experience I shall never forget." "Probably the most moving event ever in my life." These observations, written by converts to Judaism several weeks after the event, reflect the powerful impact of the mikvah ritual on Jews-by-choice and the profound importance they attach to its spiritual significance.
At a time when New Age enthusiasm is persuading numbers of people, disenchanted with traditional religious expression, to seek fresh ways of discovering spiritual meaning in their lives, Conservative Judaism has found in an age-old practice a metaphor for rebirth and renewal that retains its power to uplift, cleanse and inspire.
Five Thoughts about Mikvah
1. Immersion in the mikvah is an ancient ritual that still has Jewish legal validity.
2. The purpose of the mikvah is a spiritual one, not to bathe for physical cleanliness.
3. In the past, Conservative Judaism has by and large ignored the ritual aspects of taharat hamishpacha (laws governing sexual abstinence between married couples after menstruation and the requirement for mikvah immersion before relations are resumed) but is now reconsidering its spiritual importance.
4. Conservative conversion requires study, a meeting with a rabbinic court, circumcision for males, and ritual immersion in a mikvah.
5. Converts tend to react positively to mikvah immersion, which they appreciate for its spiritual meaning.