This weekend I had the distinct honor to present my research on mikvah at the Mathias Undergraduate Research Conference. I often get so caught up in everything I’m working out outside of the classroom that I forget about my actual studies (the whole reason I’m at AU in the first place). So having my research selected as part of this conference served as a great reminder of just how much I’ve learned over the four years I’ve been here.
Below is a video recording of my presentation along with both the slides and transcript of what I said. Enjoy!
Hi! My name is Steph Black and I am very excited to be presenting my research on mikvah and how it has been reclaimed as a modern and progressive Jewish ritual.
The first thing a Jewish community must build when in a new location is a mikvah. But before I can explain
why,I have to explain what a mikvah is. Let’s dive in!
A mikvah, in its simplest terms, is a ritual bath. Indoor mikvehot (the plural of mikvah) contain tap water and living waters called Mayyim Hayyim. Living waters can include collected
rain water. The water is cleaned like a normal pool and is heated to body temperature.
A person prepares their body and mind to enter the mikvah by following the seven
kavanot, or intentions, for immersing. The steps include removing clothing, jewelry, and any other removable barriers between the body and the water.
Then, a person
showers,uses the bathroom,and brushes their teeth. They also include short mediationsabout being mentally present inthe moment.
When finished preparing the body and mind, the person then walks down the seven steps into the warm waters of the mikvah. Typically, a person completely submerges three times and recites various prayers between each dunk.
Some of the most ancient and traditional reasons for immersing in the mikvah include converting to Judaism, dunking dishes and making kosher and ritually pure to eat from, before a woman gets married, and niddah.
So, let’s backstroke to the previous slide: the first thing a Jewish community must build is a mikvah. This is because one of the traditional purposes of the mikvah is niddah. Niddah is the period of time that includes a woman’s menstrual cycle and seven clean days post-menstruation.
Traditionally, a married couple refrains from intimacy during this period, that can include sex, touching, even sleeping in the same bed. Only when a woman immerses in the mikvah does the period of niddah end and the couple can resume sexual relations, aka, procreation.
So, building a mikvah is of the utmost importance for a community that cares about having children. The Jews.
But in the twentieth century, both niddah and the use of mikveh began to fall out of favor. Unsurprisingly, the connotations of needing to “purify” one’s body after menstruating did not survive the feminist revolution of the late 20th century, and many women of that era either stopped talking about going or stopped going altogether.
This private ritual, where those who immerse are required to do so naked and often in front of another woman who makes sure she completely immerses to guarantee that the immersion was kosher, became a deeply uncomfortable subject.
The vulnerable nature of the mikveh, coupled with the sexism of menstrual impurity, has turned many women off from using the mikveh for decades.
For example, many
mikvaotare relatively hidden, with private entrances and different entrances for men and women. It was known that if you were to see a Jewish woman with wet hair, you knew she was on her way home to have sex with her husband.
And yet today there are almost 50 progressive, community mikvehot across the country, where you can find thousands of forward-thinking and progressive women happily immersing regularly.
The mikveh today transformed from a site of private shame and taboo to become a beacon of progressive possibility. There
existsdozens of new creative prayers and rituals for an equally varied number of reasons for immersing in addition to traditional reasons for immersing such as niddah.
For example, just relating to sexuality, there are ceremonies for choosing to have an abortion, for your first period, for menopause, for the ninth month of pregnancy, for infertility, and more. How did we get here?
In 2013, sociologist Adam Galinsky and his team coined the term reappropriation to describe the process in which folks from marginalized communities reclaim derogatory terms.
Labeling oneself with any term inherently involves agency over the self, so therefore any person who self-labels has some degree of power over the self.
In a series of 10 case studies, he found that when one individual self-describes themselves with a slur, it signals to those who do not belong to that group that the said individual has agency and control.
It is then assumed that others in that group who also identify with the slur also have agency and control. Thus, this understanding creates shifts in societal hierarchies of power.
By labeling oneself with a slur, individuals reclaim power from those who use the term to harm others, undermining their attempts to use it negatively; it denies others the use of the term.
Because self-labeling with a slur connotes a shared group identity with others who fall into the same category as the individual, self-labeling becomes more than an individual act of defiance but becomes a way to influence and reclaim
powerto an entire group.
Let’s take queer as our case study. First, a person in the lgbt community self-identifies as queer. Those not in the lgbt community see this self-labeling and come to understand that the queer person has agency and control and come to see that other queer people have agency and power as well.
This shift in the power dynamics between lgbt and straight people leads to a decreased stigma of both the queer community and the word queer.
How does this theory of reappropriation apply to ritual? This is where I make a joke about being grateful that Jewish feminists didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater completely. As I mentioned, there exists a huge network of progressive mikvehot in the country.
This is because that though the ritual of mikveh has not been used in a deliberately derogatory sense, many feminist, Jewish women are aghast to learn that other feminist Jewish women would use the mikveh when it carries so much shame about menstruation and purity.
The stigma and taboo around mikveh had been pervasive enough toward women away and dissuade others from returning. But with the resurgence of the uses of mikveh and flexibility in the ways that mikveh is used, a similar pattern of reclamation emerges.
First, a woman must decide to use mikveh for herself or at the very least be curiously open to unpacking or unlearning what she has previously been taught.
This shift in power away from those who stigmatize the mikveh gives the woman the agency to create her own meaning of the ritual. So, let us all symbolically immerse in the mikvah together now, to transition us from what was to what the possibilities may be. Thank you.