The Beauty and the Horror of the Mikveh

Sept. 16, 2014

By Rachel Putterman

This summer, I had dialectically opposing experiences connected to the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath: one was exquisitely moving and beautiful, and the other was quite horrifying in its implications for women.

Until a few months ago, I didn’t know much about the mikveh even though I am nearly 50 years old, a rabbinical student, and a two-time user of the mikveh. In order to learn more, I trained to become a mikveh guide at Mayyim Hayyim, the local liberal mikveh. At Mayyim Hayyim, the grounds, building, staff and volunteers, are calm and welcoming; the air literally reverberates with the holiness of people converting, healing, marking life transitions and observing niddah, the family purity rules.

This past summer, I guided at Mayyim Hayyim for the first time. I was nervous, especially as I was going to be witnessing several immersions in a two-hour period. On the docket for the evening were a baby conversion, an adult woman conversion, a modern Orthodox bride, and a niddah. The same male Reform rabbi was sponsoring both conversions, and two additional female rabbis were sitting on the beit din, the panel of rabbis that constitutes a legal decision-making body. The baby conversion was easy. Next, the woman who was converting arrived. As she prepared for the mikveh, the bride arrived with her mother. The bride told me that the woman who taught her kallot, the rules of family purity, was going to be witnessing her immersion. Great, I thought, one less immersion for me.

Then, the other guide arrived, a modern Orthodox woman wearing a long skirt and a hat, and she was quite dismayed when she saw the conversion occurring with a male rabbi present. She said to me, "This is not right. There shouldn't be a conversion scheduled for the evening, and there definitely shouldn't be a man here. My kallah (bride) needs privacy."

I gave the rabbi a heads-up that the other guide was upset. A few minutes later, the rabbi approached the guide, and in what can only be described as a state of grace, and he completely defused her discomfort. He recognized her name, and mentioned a mutual friend who went to her synagogue. At this point of human connection, the guide's face softened, and the rabbi told her he would hold off on the immersion of the woman converting so that the bride could have total privacy. The guide was won over by the rabbi, and everything proceeded smoothly.

I, however, felt overwhelmed by the enormity of witnessing my first immersion. Immersing in the mikveh is the liminal moment when the convert actually transitions to becoming a Jew. I was going to witness this woman's life changing event, and I didn't even know her! I composed myself and went into the mikveh room. I had been taught that according to halakhah, Jewish law, for an immersion to be "kasher" or proper, there can be no barrier between the body of the person immersing and the water, which means in practical terms no piercings, make up, nail polish, contact lenses, nothing. Also, the woman's entire body has to be surrounded by water. Her feet have to come off the bottom of the mikveh and her hair cannot float on top of the water. My concern was how to make sure the women immersing complied with these rules while respecting their privacy. I was taught to hold a sheet in front of me, and to peek over the top only once I heard the splash and knew she was under the water. While part of the job of a mikveh guide is to make sure the woman immersing feels respectfully tended to, the moment of witnessing the immersion is the guide's true function, and I wanted to get it right. Despite my anxiety, I pulled it off. I witnessed her three immersions by peeking over the sheet, and after each immersion, I loudly said, "kasher" so that the rabbis in the anteroom outside the mikveh could hear me.

As I drove home later that night, I realized that the evening had been a peak experience for me. I was deeply moved by the gentle beauty of the ritual itself, as well as the vulnerability and trust of the women immersing. Perhaps most inspiring was the empathetic kindness exhibited by the Reform rabbi and the modern Orthodox guide, and the safe space they created for all involved.

The emotional high of my first night of guiding, however, was short lived. The following week, I attended a staff meeting at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, where I was an intern this past summer. On the agenda was a proposal for an art installation by an Israeli artist that documents the mikveh experiences of women converts in Israel. I was shocked to learn that the women immerse wearing robes in the presence of an all male beit din. I couldn't believe it! This seemed to fly in the face of everything I had learned at Mayyim Hayyim. The women wear robes? What about the water needing to touch every part of their bodies? Also, the idea of a male beit din witnessing a woman's immersion seemed blatantly wrong to me. Yes, I know that women are not considered valid witnesses in a Jewish court of law, but not even in the intimacy of the mikveh?

After the initial shock wore off, I read through the artist's proposal and did a little of my own research. Sure enough, ultra-Orthodox male b’tei din are witnessing female immersions for conversion in both in the U.S. and Israel. Although this is not a widely known practice outside Orthodox circles, a quick search of the Internet reveals first-hand accounts of women who have experienced humiliation and embarrassment at having to immerse in front of male b’tei din.

I'm still trying to reconcile my evening of guiding at Mayyim Hayyim with the contrasting negative mikveh experiences of some women who undergo ultra-Orthodox conversions. Although discomfort with a male beit din witnessing one’'s immersion may not be universal, that doesn't detract from the fact that some women are traumatized by it. While I recognize that the need for privacy is highly subjective, it seems heretical to me that those varying needs are not being respected. Especially, when juxtaposed with my evening of guiding at Mayyim Hayyim, where respecting the privacy of the women immersing was paramount for all involved.

Rachel Putterman is a former HBI summer intern and HBI research associate. She is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College.