The Mikvah as Spiritual Therapy

by Elyse Goldstein

From CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly, Winter/Spring 1995
Reprinted with permission

In recent years the popularity and appeal of traditional ritual in our movement have grown dramatically. On such ritual, which continues to gain acceptance and is being increasingly encouraged, is the use of the mikvah for Jews by choice, both male and female. While in 1893 the CCAR declared tevila unnecessary for conversion, the new Rabbi’s manual states,

“Nevertheless we recognize that there are social, psychological, and religious values associated with the traditional initiatory rites, and therefore recommend that the rabbi acquaint prospective converts with the halachic background and rationale for berit milah, hatafat dam berit, and tevila, and offer them the opportunity to observe these rites.”

The rite of mikvah can bring immense satisfaction to a person embracing Judaism, marking and ritualizing and internal shift and making it physical, external, seen, and heard.

The Mikvah as a Spiritual Tool

Are there occasions in which we can appropriate the “spiritual cleansing” properties of tevila? In the past ten years I have witnessed the powerful emotional response of Jews by choice to the mikvah experience and I have sought to recreate that experience for Jews in other life situations. I myself have experienced this transformative power. The first time I went to mikvah was before my ordination. I wanted to “come clean” as I approached what I felt — and still fell — was the day I began my spiritual calling. I knew that ordination day itself would be moving, but also hectic and public. I wanted a private way to prepare. Because I was not married at the time, the “mikvah lady” was hesitant and unsure, but somehow I managed to convince her that I was like a bride in this case! I again used mikvah personally after sheloshim for my sister. The intensity of the mourning period and my own grief was so strong that I needed an equally strong ritual to mark my reentry into normal life.

As a rabbi, I wanted to offer this kind of compelling experience to congregants, removed from conversion and from its traditional and problematic associations with women and niddah. A woman in my temple had been raped by a handyman she had hired to work in her home. She was a single mother and extremely emotionally fragile. She sought therapy after the rape and months after was still at an impasse with her feelings of being “dirty.” Her therapist (a non-Jew), knowing how involved she was in the temple and how much comfort that brought her, inquired about Jewish ritual which could help this woman remove the feeling of being “tainted.” I suggested the mikvah could be both a symbol and a real tool for cleansing her body and soul. We tried it, on a quiet spring afternoon, the therapist, this woman, and I went to the mikvah, prayed together for wholeness and purity, and she immersed. While the mikvah was not magic, her therapist reported that having a Jewish framework in which she could rid herself of the shame and “stain” was crucial to the successful completion of her treatment and her ability to go back to work, temple, friends, and family with a sense of peace.

Since that incident, my own use of the mikvah as a tool, and that of other rabbis to whom I have proposed it, have elicited an overwhelmingly positive response in almost every case. Some Jewish therapists and pastoral counselors, seeing the link between sexuality, spirituality, and spiritual purity, are either using the mikvah as a tool with clients or referring them to rabbis who will take them. Situations in which the rabbis can use or suggest mikvah include rape, incest, marital infidelity and reconciliation, infertility, loss of pregnancy, end of mourning, menopause, after invasive surgery, milestone birthdays, crisis points, and life-changing situations.

Of course the mikvah does not take the place of therapy. It is not voodoo. It will not bring fertility or good luck, and it cannot radically change personalities or situations. It will not cure deep-rooted problems. It is no quick fix; it is but one part of a healing process expressed in tangible ritual. It is probably more symbolism than anything else, according to therapist Yonah Klem, “a bath unlike any ordinary bath”:

“What is crucial to the process is a decision to create an event that will be meaningful, and behavior that sets the event out of the ordinary. Planning the behavior, preparing and waiting with intent all seem important. At home, the bathroom is familiar and the water, whatever normally comes out of the tap. Leaving the ease and familiarity of home to bathe in a different bathroom, and then to go further to immerse in the natural waters in a pool that has no counterpart anywhere else, also builds and expectation for something more than just washing up to take place.”

Like any ritual, the use of the mikvah as a spiritual tool requires preparation and creativity. It requires new liturgy to accompany the ceremony and an open, supportive atmosphere. It requires that the rabbi too believe that something more than just washing up is going to take place.

The Ritual Itself

The text I have used is Ezekiel 36:25–26: v’zarakti aleichem mayim t’horim ut’hartem: I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean … I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.” I ask the participant to write something about why he/she has come to the mikvah and what their intent — kavanah — is. The participant may choose to sing a niggun or read a poem first, or do the ritual in total silence. They may choose to bring a loved one along or go alone with their rabbi and/or a witness of their own gender. There is no need for a beit din or other witnesses, although some participants have chosen dear friends or family to accompany to watch.

The participant does all the traditional preparations — thoroughly cleansing the body first — and then takes a moment for silent prayer in the water, focusing on feelings of trust, purity, and goodness. Often we have discussed the Jewish concepts of emunah, taharah, and chesed beforehand. The first two immersions are performed with the traditional blessing al ha-tevila. After the bracha I ask if the participant wishes to make any statement or affirmations either verbally or silently. Then he/she immerses once more with the shehecheyanu. I try and keep the atmosphere as quiet as possible, using low lights, candles or even tapes “meditative” music. Of course all this is made easier by a mikvah that gives control to the rabbi and does not have a nosy shomeret hovering about. A lake, a pond, or even an indoor pool are possible alternatives in cases where there is no mikvah or the mikvah is hostile to such non-traditional uses.

The Case for Our Movement

The Reform movement is now seriously considering women’s rituals and creative rituals, as evidenced not only by our new Rabbi’s Manual but also by the newly revised Gates of the Home. It seems highly appropriate that we consider the spiritual power of “cleansing” rituals in a world hungry for symbols, positive mythology, and meaning. People turn to us because they trust us to be open about the reappropriation of traditional images and rites, giving them new egalitarian or feminist meanings. Synagogue attendance is down — but New Age, chavurot, and small spiritually inclined groups are emerging stronger each day. People want their lives transformed in a Jewish way, and often sadly note, in times of deep crisis, aside from death, Judaism itself does not offer solace. They turn to eastern and Native systems, not knowing that Judaism already possesses a storehouse of possibility. The mikvah ritual rings true for them. It feels Jewish, it feels ancient, yet it feels creative and life-affirming. I have argued elsewhere that the mikvah can be rediscovered from a feminist perspective, and I believe that the majority of such new nontraditional uses of the mikvah as spiritual therapy support an egalitarian and feminist vision. And certainly we Reform rabbis need not fear being labeled as “frum” on this one!

We can midrashically present the waters of mikvah as the waters of Eden, the waters of the womb, Miriam’s well, the soft warm rainwater or creation. Immersion lets us dive down dep and resurface with hope. It literally washes away the past. As the Jew by choice emerges from the water forever changed, so too any participant. The mikvah has the potential to be an ablution that can open the floodgates of reconnection to Judaism and wholeness of the self.

Elyse Goldstein is the director of Kolel: A Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, the adult yeshiva of the Canadian Reform movement.