Photo by Reuters
In our Jewish tradition the Mikveh, or ritual immersion, is used for any number of purposes. Ritual immersion is the total submersion of the body in a natural body of water. A sexually active woman is expected to immerse herself after her period, before resuming sexual relations. A bride traditionally immerses herself before the wedding day. New dishes are immersed in a Mikveh. Immersion is a requirement for all who convert to Judaism. Some have the custom of using the Mikveh before each Holiday, Shabbat, or even weekday.
There have been ceremonies created, where immersion is a central ritual, for life changing events, personal milestones, and for healing.
While a Mikveh may be most any natural body of water, more often than not, we build our Mikvaot in keeping with the demads of religious law.
Water has many symbolic meanings in our tradition. Immersion is not about cleanliness. It is about a spiritual experience and, even, a spiritual rebirth. It involves moving to higher spiritual realms. Hence, a Bracha (blessing) is recited for many Mikveh immersions.
Most Mikvaot in Israel belong to the public. They are, in that sense, no different from a public library or a school playground. Of course they are religious institutions. They are to be treated with respect. But they are, or ought to be, open to all who enter.
Unfortunately this is not the case. The Chief Rabbi has issued a letter instructing “Mikveh Ladies” to deny unmarried women. Rav Metzger feels allowing a single woman to immerse will lead to promiscuity. In reality, barring the use may lead to something far worse in the eyes of our tradition.
Women who come before a wedding are often asked to present a note to be signed by the Mikveh Lady and returned to the Rabbinate. Those wishing to marry outside the framework of the official Rabbinate (e.g. through the Masorti Movement) may be barred from immersing.
Although the Mikvaot belong to the citizens of Israel, they are too often viewed as the private property of those who hold the keys. On more than one occasion we found the locks had been changed at a municipal Mikveh in order to keep out those who would be immersing for the purpose of conversion outside the official Rabbinate.
Such behavior, while typical of thugs and bullies, is all the more problematic as it is carried out by civil servants who are obligated to uphold the law and serve the public – not some limited public whom they deem deserving.
I am reminded again of the unavailability of Mikvaot here in Israel to so many who wish to use them. The Anglo-Jewish media carried a story about Oprah visiting a Mikveh. Blogs have picked it up (see: Did Oprah Go to the Mikveh for her new show?
How amazing that Oprah can spread the word of this ancient, and now renewed, ritual, but the word in Israel, at least for those who do not fit the cookie cutter demands of the Chief Rabbinate, is “Go Away!”