by Dr. Erica Brown
“I shall sprinkle upon you water of purification, and you shall be purified. I will cleanse you from all impurities…”
In the past few weeks, the mikve, a space of sacred purity and privacy, has become a subject of scrutiny and suspicion. For those who perform this mitzva regularly, an obligation of holiness suddenly provokes worry. Is someone watching me? For those who have never immersed in a ritual bath, the chances of ever going to the mikve have just gotten slimmer. It’s not hard to understand the anxiety. This mitzva has been sheltered both in the placement of the building and the secrecy of the practice. Open conversations about mikve use are rare.
Immersion in the mikve is one of my very favorite mitzvot, and I hate to see it belittled and diminished, particularly by those who have never seen its value or dipped into its waters. It’s time to strengthen its observance because, as Rahm Immanuel said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Maimonides references the biblical verse above in the very last law of his “Laws of Mikvaot” [11:12]. He acknowledges that this mitzva would not have emerged from natural observance or logic; it demands a suspension of logic because notions of purity rarely make sense. “Impurity is not mud or filth that can be washed away with water,” Maimonides writes. “Instead the immersion is a Scriptural decree and requires focusing one’s heart.”
This led Maimonides to the conclusion that unlike other mitzvot where action trumps intention, the mikve requires both action and intention to be fulfilled optimally. If I sit in a sukka but am distracted and not thinking about the mitzva at all as I perform it, I have still satisfied the legal requirement of sitting in the sukka, even if it is sub-optimal. If I immersed in the mikve and was distracted, I have to immerse again because without intention, the mitzva has not been fulfilled at all. Maimonides, therefore, writes, “When one immersed but did not intend to purify himself, it is as if he did not immerse…One who focuses his heart on purifying himself becomes purified once he immerses, even though there was no change in his body.”
Maimonides continues this thought by suggesting that the mikve is a place where, with the right intention, we rid ourselves of impure thoughts that lead to bad behaviors: “Similarly one who focuses his heart on purifying his soul from the impurities of the soul, which are the wicked thoughts and bad character traits, becomes purified when he resolves within his heart to distance himself from such counsel and immerses his soul in the waters of knowledge, as Ezekiel states, ‘I shall sprinkle upon you water of purification, and you shall be purified. I will cleanse you from all impurities…'” It is almost as if the soul rather than the body was being dipped into ‘waters of knowledge’ and rinsing away the internal filth that builds up daily: the arguments, the gossip, the grudges, the jealousies, the meanness. It sluices away when we enter the mikve, and we emerge re-born, in the mystics’ view, trying once again to get it right.
One person’s abuse of the mikve turned it, in some people’s minds, into the exact opposite of what the space is – safe, sacred and special. It’s time to take the mikve back – for converts and regular users – by recommitting ourselves to its deepest meaning and purpose as a spiritual tool to achieve holiness and to encourage its use for those who have never experienced the beauty of ritual immersion.
For converts and others who feel violated, perhaps – in the spirit of Maimonides – it is time to immerse in the mikve once again to rid oneself of this impurity, the impurity of these past weeks. If it helps, before the immersion, you may want to recite on or both of these two excerpts from prayers traditionally said before immersion:
“…Just as I am cleansing my body of spiritual impurity in this water, so in Your great mercy and abundant kindness may You cleanse my soul of all impurity and dross, so that we might experience fulfillment of the verse ‘I shall sprinkle upon you water of purification, and you shall be purified,’ for as it is written, ‘God is the hope [mikve] of Israel.'” This was written by the Ben Ish Chai (1832-1909). The full text appears in the Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book by Aliza Lavie.
Devra Kay collected this prayer in Seder Tkhines: The Forgotten Book of Common Prayer for Jewish Women, likely written by a woman in the 19th century:
“God, my God, the time has come today
For me to cleanse myself of my impurities.
God, my God,
May it be Your will that my cleansing
In the water of the mikve
Be counted with the purification
Of all pious women in Israel
Who go to the mikve at their time
To cleanse themselves.
Accept my prayer…”