A novelist and feminist reimagines immersion.
In the last century, the following sentence would have caused heads to explode: Author Anita Diamant, Jewish feminist and a lifelong member of Reform congregations, is a founder and president of Mayyim Hayyim, Living Waters Community Mikveh in Newton, Mass., which opened in 2004.
Today, the equation feminist + Reform = mikveh raises barely an eyebrow.
In the very beginning of the story, before anything happens, God is hanging out at the beach. “ . . . hovering over the face of the waters.” (The Hebrew word for that wet primordial chaos is t’hom, which should always be uttered in a basso profundo voice like that of Mr. James Earl Jones.)
The puzzle is that the ocean somehow precedes creation.
This I believe
I believe in the ocean.
From a granite perch on the edge of the Atlantic, the waves arrive with infinite variety. This one washes in with a sigh.
The next one hits with wild, white, oxygenated spray that ascends six feet into the air. And vanishes.
Seaside, I am exalted, comforted, terrified, humbled, calmed, inspired. I become aware of every damp and vulnerable cell in my body. I forget myself entirely. I weep for the dead. I suddenly know how to start the next chapter of
the book I am writing.
I believe in the ocean, and also the river, winding through the city like a
I believe in the pond, an eye looking heavenward.
You don’t need a consecrated space to do mikveh. The ocean is a kosher mikveh, as are spring-fed lakes and some rivers. When you bring the water inside, there are Talmudic rules to follow regarding dimensions and pipes.
There are also customs, embedded as deeply as the chuppah at a Jewish wedding, such as those seven steps leading into the pool.
But truly, there is nothing “sacred” about the place itself. It is not consecrated like a cemetery. A mikveh is a vessel, like a Kiddush cup. The magic happens only within a living, creative moment—in breath, in gesture, in the words of the mouth and the meditations of the heart.
A mikveh is a ritualarium; the place that provides the possibility.
My daughter was born after a long labor that ended in Caesarean section. Two days later, the nurse helped me into the shower, where I wept with joy at the sensation of the water running through my matted hair, washing clean the stickiness of birth, returning me to my body, changed but still mine. I remember the flavor of that water, mixed with tears, even though it was 24 years ago. It tasted of gratitude.
This is such a universal emotion that the renewal of mikveh should come as no surprise.
Miriam’s Cup, filled with water, has joined Elijah’s cup at the seder table, giving us new rituals as well as some something else to make beautiful, explain, and argue about.
Liberal Jews, a learned and learning bunch, increasingly confident of our legitimacy, bring the same religious creativity to ancient practices. At Mayyim Hayyim, the soothing embrace of the water and the power of ritual now serve Jewish life in all its infinite variety.
Thus, a widow comes to immerse on the day she removed her wedding band, signifying her readiness to love again.
Looks do matter
“If a person immerses without kavanah (intention), it is as though he had not immersed at all.” (Maimonides)You can make Kiddush with a paper cup, wrapping your hand around that disposable nothing like you’re holding a beer.
But Jews tend to avoid paper cups when it’s time to say a bracha. We raise grandpa’s silver beaker or that one-of-a-kind glass goblet you got at your bat mitzvah. Some of us hold the cup from the bottom, as though our fingers were sepals supporting the petals of a rose.
Because turning a beverage into a blessing requires forethought.
Same thing with a ritual bath. The kavanah of a mikveh should be evident in the choice of tiles and towels, and especially in the sound of the voice that answers the phone. No detail is trivial in the service of gratitude or grief or joy.
Ritual and Mitzvah
Conversion and married (heterosexual) sex are the sole occasions when immersion is mandated, when mikveh is a mitzvah. Then, you need a witness to make sure that the water covers every strand of hair. You recite blessings that invoke the notion of being “commanded.”
But the ritual of mikveh has been used in non-commanded ways for generations.
Men dunk before Shabbat, women in the ninth month of pregnancy. Getting ready.
A story is told that before the first printed edition of the Zohar, the great book of Jewish mysticism, was set in type, the press was dismantled and each piece lowered into a mikveh.
At Mayyim Hayyim, after six years in service, we noticed that the vast majority of immersions have been for the purpose of a mitzvah. That was a surprise.
But by welcoming and fostering ritual creativity we know that the whole community is served, because the whole community shows up.
When you open the mikveh to everyone in the community and let it be known that the place really belongs to all of the Jewish people:
Th e lesbian brides arrive smiling; no lies obscure their happiness.
The teenage girl, heartbroken, weeps over the loss of her first love.
A Muslim man and his Christian wife attend as their infant grandchild is converted to Judaism. In the guest book he writes, “What a beautiful place.”
The rabbi, who has brought scores to the mikveh for conversion, immerses for the first time prior to the Days of Awe. To prepare.
Letting go, starting over, the breast cancer survivor immerses, and the prostate cancer survivor, and the couple mourning a miscarriage.
An African American family of seven—mom, dad, and children ranging from three months to eight years—are serenaded with “Siman Tov U Mazal Tov” as each of them and all of them become part of the Jewish people.
The recovering alcoholic marks a year of sobriety.
Women of every denomination and description immerse monthly, as they see fit.
I could go on, but you get the picture.
Am Yisrael Chai.
Anita Diamant’s most recent book is the novel, “Day After Night,” now in paperback.