judaism · ritual · spirituality

Sacred skinny-dipping

It was midsummer in a basin in the Welsh valleys. I found myself completely naked with a friend in a lukewarm tub of rainwater. We were supposed to wait for it to properly heat up over the log fire, but I was in a hurry to go from teaching Torah there to preaching in north-west London. The sunshine compensated for us. 

All around there were huge green trees, rolling hills, a babbling brook. Hippies not far away chanted in Hebrew while banging on drums.

“OK,” I said. “Now what do I do?”

“So I’m going to tell you my practice,” she said, “but you can come up with your own.”

Her practice, I later discovered, was the same one as you would find Orthodox Jews performing on Friday afternoons, as sanctioned by rabbis and law books. She had a way of making every tradition feel New Age.

She dunked fully underwater three times, twice emerging to recite a prayer.

Al hatvilah – thank you, God, for making me holy by commanding me in immersion.

Shehechiyanu- thank you, God, for keeping me alive to see this day.

On the third dip, she came up, smiled and said: “That’s all there is to it.”

I copied her every move. And that was it: my first mikveh.

I had previously associated this ritual with Orthodox women washing off the ritual impurity associated with menstruation. It had seemed to me outdated and misogynistic. 

The only other people I knew of who did it were converts, undergoing a form of Jewish baptism to initiate them into the religion. I had thought, cynically, that these new Jews were washing off the goy.

But here was my teacher, Yael Tischler, far more radical than I was in terms of religious innovation and transgressive liturgy; a witchy feminist affiliated to the Kohenet movement in America – a bohemian collective for women-centred spirituality. 

With her, the act of immersion didn’t feel problematic. It felt like my whole body was wrapped up in Jewish history. It felt connected to the earthy, fleshy customs of long-gone ancestors.

This was strange, because I know that none of my recent ancestors would have done such a thing. Liberal Jews were, by and large, decidedly opposed to many embodied rituals. 

Like their reforming Christian counterparts, many of the early Progressive Jews felt that religion should be a matter of intellectual faith. It should be stripped down to its essential meanings, devoid of excessive piety or symbols. 

In the great platforms decreed from Germany and the USA, Reform Jews repudiated circumcision, abandoned kashrut and denounced tallits. They ridiculed shockeling, the Eastern Ashkenazi prayer movements, as “bowing and scraping.” One British Liberal rabbi called kippot “the eccentric trappings of the Orient.”

As you can imagine, mikvaot did not get much of a look-in. For decades, ritual immersion was not a requisite part of conversion at the Reform beit din. Today, very few progressive Jews will attend the mikveh before their wedding. It is almost unheard of that a progressive Jew will have a regular toiveling practice as the Orthodox do.

This week’s parashah probably provides a good explanation as to why progressives are so uncomfortable with it. This week, we read Tazria-Metzora, a portion dedicated to defiling skin diseases, leprous houses, sexual infections and menstrual impurity. 

To escape the uncleanness that falls upon people by contact with these things, ancient Israelites would ritually immerse in a mikveh. The Torah describes mayyim chayyim – running water – in which people would wash themselves. We know that in the period after the Great Exile, the mikveh was likely an enormous bath at the entrance to the Second Temple. 

In the biblical world, the mikveh does seem troubling. It exists for a people obsessed by physical purity, who want to remove their blemishes before they enter sacred spaces. I would not feel comfortable advocating immersion to congregants on the grounds that their bodies are unclean and carry associations of sin. 

But my teacher, Rabbi Debbie Young Somers, argues that our rabbis fundamentally transformed what mikveh meant. She did her rabbinic thesis on mikvaot and has taught about their virtues in numerous study sessions. When I asked her for sources for this sermon, she immediately sent me detailed source sheets and tweeted her glee that the subject matter was being discussed in our synagogue. 

Impurity, Rabbi Debbie argues, is not the same as defilement for the rabbis. It is what happens when you come close to something holy. Touching religious texts, having sex, giving birth and changing to a more holy status, are acts that require immersion. Faeces, urine and vomit, which are more obviously disgusting, do not require any religious ritual. When we wash ourselves, we are not scrubbing away sinful dirt, but acknowledging sacred contagion.

In a post-Temple world, nobody can be clean or unclean. The mechanisms for such processes are gone and the need to do so – so that one might perform an animal sacrifice in the correct state – thankfully no longer exists. 

The Talmud records that, nevertheless, Jewish women took the obligation of ritual immersion upon themselves. It was a choice that antique ancestresses made as part of their covenant with God. When they did, the rabbis largely trusted women to self-regulate and organise their own mikvaot. It might well be that they already had very little authority over this aspect of life.

Today, feminists are returning to these practices. Led mostly by religious women, efforts to reclaim the mikveh are popping up all over the world. Scholars and lay people are extolling the virtues of immersion for both men and women.

People take these ritual baths before life-changing events, like trying for a baby, getting married, starting a new job and completing a course of study. They also use the mikveh to process life’s trials, like miscarriage, recovery from illness, divorce and redundancy. 

That was how I ended up, a few summers ago, doing sacred skinny dipping in the countryside. I am now convinced that it is a deeply moving spiritual practice, and I commend it to anyone who is interested. 

The Sternberg Centre in North London has a functioning mikveh. There is also a programme underway called the Wellspring Project, which hopes to soon create a mikveh-oriented wellbeing centre. In Manchester, the new building for Jackson’s Row is planned to have a mikveh.

And the wonderful thing about mikveh is that you don’t have to travel far to do it. You can toivel in any naturally occurring water, like seas, lakes and rivers. Just turn up, jump in, and dip your head underwater. 

And thank God for the commandments. 

And thank God for your body.

And thank God you’re alive.

And thank God that we can take these ancient practices and make them our own.

I gave this sermon on Shabbat 17 April 2021 for Parashat Tazria-Metzora at Newcastle Reform Synagogue

sermon · social justice · theology · torah

The Fragility of Progress

When the news came in, I was sitting on the sofa watching the TV with my mum. I was in my late teens, back home from my first term at university.

The government had just legalised IVF for lesbians. It was the crowning glory of a raft of legislation passed by a Parliament that permitted gay adoption, created civil partnerships, and outlawed discrimination. Each law had been loudly and publicly debated, and there was no guarantee that any of the laws would pass.

I was overwhelmed with joy. “This is it,” I turned to my mum. “We’ve won so much. They can never take it away from us now.”

“Yes they can.” She said. “They can take it away whenever they want.”

She wasn’t gloating. She wasn’t sad. She was just stating a fact she’d learnt from bitter experience. She had joined the labour movement in its heyday, before workers’ organising rights had been curtailed and union membership had started its slow decline. She had given herself to the women’s movement and successfully fought for domestic violence shelters, women’s representation committees and helplines, only to see them all shut down.

She knew, in a way that I was too naive to understand, that what the powerless took a century to win, the powerful could take away in a day.

A fortnight ago, we read the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad. Five women from the tribe of Manasseh brought a petition before Moses and the elders, requesting that they be able to inherit their father’s estate. They argue that their father was loyal to Moses and, having no brothers, they are his proper heirs.

Moses agrees. He says their cause is just. He sets a precedent and introduces a new law: that whenever a man dies leaving daughters but no sons, his daughters will inherit him.

It is a favourite story of progressive Jews. In pulpits across the world, rabbis will have given sermons arguing that this text shows that we are right. Halachah can change. We can advance the rights of women. Judaism can progress.

This week, we are less triumphant. Cushioned at the end of the book of Numbers are the terms and conditions imposed on the daughters of Zelophehad. The men who head up the tribe of Manasseh ask Moses to revisit the case. If these women marry whoever they like, the tribe’s portion will be smaller.

Moses agrees with them. The daughters of Zelophehad must marry men from the tribe of Manasseh. The estate they inherited must become part of their husbands’ wealth. That will be the law. All women who inherit their father’s estates must marry men from the same tribe and hand over their wealth. What they won one week, they lost the next.

What does it mean for progressive Jews? The clue is, after all in the name: progressive Jews are supposed to believe in progress. Judaism can progress. We can change to become more inclusive and equal.

Our faith in progress is a response to Enlightenment and emancipation. Jews were granted citizenship. Science advanced and the age of reason prevailed. Mendelssohn called us out of the ghettos, promising the Jews of Germany that the world was waiting for them. The Jews would enter into history. If humanity was going to advance, we would lead the charge. Progress was unstoppable.

History had other plans. What rights we won, we lost in greater measure. After citizenship came the death camps. Progress could be stopped after all.

How can we possibly continue to have faith in progress after the horrors of the Shoah? How can we hold onto our hopes when we know how easily they can be dashed?

The answer is simply that we must. We hold onto our values because they are right. To be a progressive today does not mean believing that the victory of the oppressed is inevitable, but that it is necessary. We do not know whether justice can win, but only that it must.

The moments of victory are not just short-lived achievements. When we win the right of women to inherit, or lesbians to have IVF, or gays to adopt, we do not just win a legal right. We are glimpsing what is possible. We gain strength as we realise that progress we once thought impossible can be achieved. The realisation of a dream only calls for more dreams.

Today, pundits warn us of the great fragility of progress. In a tear-filled speech to Parliament recently, Angela Eagle MP told the Commons: “We know that the motivations of some of those involved in this are reactionary, and they are to return us to an era where LGBT people should get back in the closet and hide and be ashamed of the way they are.”

The progress that gave us lesbian IVF, gay adoption and the Equality Act is proving vulnerable once more. Those who had never quite felt included in Britain are feeling more alienated than ever, and those who assumed Britain would always be their home are having doubts.

But we should not despair. Whatever progress we have made has not been given to us by an invisible hand of history that oscillates between liberalism and fascism, but by people making the choice that progress is worth fighting for. We win rights not because of the generosity of politicians but because of the insistence of those who believe in justice.

Recognising that progress is fragile, all we can do is ask ourselves whether it is worth fighting for. And because it is worth fighting for, we will fight. And if we fight hard enough, we may win.

hopeful sunrise

I wrote this sermon for the weekly newsletter of Leo Baeck College, for Parashat Masei, 3rd August 2019