Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Sanctifying Waters: The Mikvah and Conservative Judaism
By Rabbi Myron S. Geller

Ever since the days of the Bible, the use of a mikvah, or bath for spiritua=
l purification, has been a widely practiced ritual amongst the Jewish peopl=
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 characte=
ristics of its contents. When the Jerusalem Temple still stood, immersion i=
n 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 san=
ctuary. After the Temple was destroyed, the mikvah was used primarily by th=
ree groups of people:
(1) married women following menstruation, who could resume marital relation=
s after immersion,
(2) proselytes as part of their ceremony of conversion,
(3) those seeking a measure of spiritual uplift, particularly before the Sa=
bbath 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 Fir=
st Temple, the Biblical prophet Ezekiel used the mikvah as a metaphor of re=
storation, spiritual and political. " I will sprinkle clean water upon you,=
and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and f=
rom all your fetishes." (Ezekiel 36:25). And almost two millennia later Mai=
monides wrote, "Spiritual purity and impurity are based on Scriptural law a=
nd are not rationally understood categories. So too immersion after impurit=
y. Impurity is not mud or filth that can be removed by water but is based o=
n Scriptural law and depends entirely on human intention." (Yad, Mikvaot 11=
Some aspects of ritual mikvah immersion have retained their importance amon=
gst observant Jews to this day, but the spiritual implications of mikvah ar=
e 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 rec=
ently has begun to reevaluate its silence in this area and to consider the =
spiritual implications of mikvah immersion for human sexuality and for wome=
n. As Rabbi Elliot Dorff has written, "...some couples have made [sexual ab=
stinence during menstruation followed by ritual immersion leading to a resu=
mption of sexual relations] part of their sexual practice... some women fin=
d 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 genera=
l, these rationales, taken together, add a sense of ongoing holiness to the=
marital relationship."
Conservative Judaism's outreach activities have, in recent decades, resulte=
d in increasing numbers of people seeking to convert to Judaism. The Conser=
vative Jewish process of conversion requires candidates, after a significan=
t period of study, to appear before a beit din, or rabbinic court, to expla=
in their reasons for choosing Judaism and to commit themselves to live as J=
ews, 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 ceremo=
ny. 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 heigh=
tened spirituality, leaving a permanent mark on their religious awareness. =
Some comments I have received about the mikvah include: "It made me feel cl=
oser to God," "Rich and rewarding," "An emotional highlight of my life," "E=
xcellent experience... It was inspiring," "When I came up from the waters a=
ll was quiet, my eyes wanted to cry. My soul was still... I am still in a s=
tate of peacefulness and love fills me." "An experience I shall never forge=
t." "Probably the most moving event ever in my life." These observations, w=
ritten by converts to Judaism several weeks after the event, reflect the po=
werful impact of the mikvah ritual on Jews-by-choice and the profound impor=
tance they attach to its spiritual significance.
At a time when New Age enthusiasm is persuading numbers of people, disencha=
nted with traditional religious expression, to seek fresh ways of discoveri=
ng spiritual meaning in their lives, Conservative Judaism has found in an a=
ge-old practice a metaphor for rebirth and renewal that retains its power t=
o uplift, cleanse and inspire.
Five Thoughts about Mikvah
1. Immersion in the mikvah is an ancient ritual that still has Jewish legal=
2. The purpose of the mikvah is a spiritual one, not to bathe for physical =
3. In the past, Conservative Judaism has by and large ignored the ritual as=
pects of taharat hamishpacha (laws governing sexual abstinence between marr=
ied couples after menstruation and the requirement for mikvah immersion bef=
ore relations are resumed) but is now reconsidering its spiritual importanc=
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 apprec=
iate for its spiritual meaning.


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