Friday, April 17, 2009

A Liberating Swim in the Mikvah (Derashah Shemini 5769)

In the 1920s and 1930s, psychiatrists prescribed hydrotherapy for delirium, excitement and other nervous disorders. Thetreatments involved everything from extended baths to strong sprays of cold water, all based on the observable fact that immersing in water, and thereby shutting out the world, calms people.

Many of those hydrotherapeutic prescriptions have since been discredited, but the core practice remains popular. There are few experiences as soothing, and as liberating from stress and dark emotion, as a good bath – and that, according to Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, is what drives the mikvah mitzvah outlined in our parshah.

The Torah instructs us to immerse after contact with death – whether with a human corpse, or with the carcasses of various animals, or even with the diminished potential associated with the loss of male seed or a woman’s egg. In all of those cases, one goes to a mikvah, dipping entirely into a body of collected rainwater.

As with every other set of laws, Judaism offers a range of interpretations to explain what Gd wants us to learn from this mitzvah. One of my perennial favorites, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, presents an approach which demonstrates the way that immersion in a mikvah fits into the broader life of the Jew.

As Hirsch explains in his commentary on the Torah, a human being is not, automatically, blessed with free will and capable of making independent decisions. The potential for free will is present from the very start of life; we are free to become righteous, or the opposite! But we travel and interact inside a confining system which dampens that expression, accustoming us to a materialism and an animal existence in which our environment as well as the pressure of our basic needs limit our opportunities and dictate our decisions.

This limitation, this repression of our spiritual freedom, is nowhere stronger than in death, that ultimate expression of our most basic animal aspect and that acknowledgement that our souls lack complete mastery over our world.

Enter immersion in a mikvah, to rescue a human being from this loss of spiritual dominion. As Hirsch writes, “When a man immerses the whole of himself in water of that nature, and completely and in direct contact enters this element, he completely… leaves the stage of Mankind and for the moment returns to the sphere of the world of elements, to begin a new life of Taharah. It is symbolic of a new birth.”

Immersing in a mikvah is our opportunity to shut out the physical world, to silence our more animal natures, and to return to the pristine character of our moment of creation. It applies to men and women alike, a step toward a cure for ailments which cannot be seen with the naked eye, but which are nonetheless real.

And so, the Jews who flee Egypt immerse before they can receive the Torah.
And so, every person who wishes to convert to Judaism immerses.
And so, the Jew who wishes to bring an offering to Gd in the Beit haMikdash immerses.
And so, ancient Jewish homes excavated all over Israel contained private mikvah baths.
And so, the Jews who came to Easton in the end of the 18th century, Jews who lacked kosher restaurants and glatt meat and eruvin, made certain to immerse in Bushkill Creek.
And so, every shochet who wishes to shecht, every mohel who wishes to conduct a bris, immerses beforehand.
And so, a bride and groom immerse before marriage.
And so, many Jewish men immerse on Fridays and before Yom Tov.

And so, Jews of all persuasions – right here at our Mikvah in Allentown - have come to see mikvah as a transformative experience for key moments in their lives, based not on halachic requirement but on an understanding of what this remarkable act of religious hydrotherapy, in the right context, can accomplish.

I am not a practitioner of or proponent of creative ritual in general, but I believe that those groups who have taken on use of the mikvah in addition to its halachic function – not as a replacement for halachah, but as an addition to it – are doing a wonderful thing. They understand the Hirschian message, they are sensitive to their own deeper condition, and they are taking the reins of their spiritual lives through this action.

We could all cite a thousand current articles from magazines and newspapers from across the religious and non-religious spectrum, highlighting the problem of finding spirituality in our daily lives. Our time constraints, our work obligations, our health considerations, our family pressures, our volunteer work, all clamor for our time and our attention, and the resulting noise drowns out the קול דממה דקה, that small voice that says, “Don’t forget about the soul.”

The mikvah is a way to re-connect. Anyone can do it – feel free to speak to my wife Caren, or to me, about ways to take advantage.

For the Haftorah last Shabbos, during Pesach, we read Yechezkel’s message of re-birth, the resurrection of the dry bones and the promise of an ultimate rejuvenation of the Jewish people. Just before that message, in the preceding chapter, Yechezkel pledged to the Jewish people that HaShem would use water to purify us – granting us a לב חדש, a new heart, and a רוח חדשה, a new spirit.

At a time when so many of us are trying to feel something beyond stress and strain, at a time when we need that new heart and that new spirit, we have the opportunity to re-embrace our parshah’s spiritual hydrotherapy, and so merit a לב חדש and a רוח חדשה, as well as Yechezkel’s promised final step, והנחתי אתכם על אדמתכם, a return to our land of Israel.

I have much to say here, but no time right now. Perhaps later, or in the comments...


  1. Excellent post. Something interesting. It seems to me that Ashkenaz Jews in America were rather quick to give up mikvah and Taharat mishpacha, even when they seemed "religious." But in Israel, I've discovered that Sfardi Jews who don't seem religious keep Taharat Mishpacha and mikva as most important.

  2. Hi Muse,

    An interesting point. I can't comment on whether ashkenazim gave it up quickly or not, but I have seen here, as you have in Israel, that some Sephardim who are not necessarily observant of day-to-day halachah are nonetheless careful with mikvah.