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 It had seemed to me outdated and misogynistic.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

judaism · sermon

What do Jews look like?

A woman on a train walked up to a man across the table. “Excuse me,” she said, “but are you Jewish?”

“No,” replied the man.

A few minutes later the woman returned. “Excuse me,” she said again, “are you sure you’re not Jewish?”

“I’m sure,” said the man.

But the woman was not convinced, and a few minutes later she approached him a third time. “Are you absolutely sure you’re not Jewish?” she asked.

“All right, all right,” the man said. “You win. I’m Jewish.”

“That’s funny,” said the woman.” You don’t look Jewish.”

This classic Jewish joke actually highlights a good question: what do Jews look like? I am often told either that I do look like one, or that I don’t, and when I ask what it is… nobody ever wants to tell me! Whatever the reason, people have in their minds a picture of a Jew.

As it turns out, this isn’t altogether a new thing. Indeed, this week, we read about the clothes for Aaron and his descendants of the priestly caste. They have a strict identifying uniform.

Linen headdress, sash and and robes. A metal encrusted breastplate. Ephod, urim, tumim, incense. Aaron looks holy. Aaron looks like he stands out. Aaron looks… Aaron looks a lot like the Tabernacle he serves.

Aaron is to dress in the same white linen that we are told covers the Holy of Holies. He is to wrap himself in yarns of crimson and turquoise, just like the sashes that decorate the sanctuary. He is framed in gold like the Tabernacle’s curtain rails. He must wear a breastplate encrusted with stones representing the twelve tribes, just as the stones were ritually placed at the major resting points of the Israelites. 

Aaron is the Tabernacle in miniature. He is a microcosmic representative of the function he serves. The clothes he wears even assist in atoning for the Israelites’ sins, just as a sacrificial altar would.

Aaron dresses like what he does. He says: I am going to do holy things, and I require holy garb to do it in.

What a contrast with the Megillah we read just yesterday. In the book of Esther, there is an initial threat to the Jews. Haman, their wicked adversary, stomps through the city and plots Jewish mass murder. But Esther, our triumphant hero, foils the plot and overturns the decision. Now, instead, her uncle Mordechai will stomp through the streets of Shushan.

The Book of Esther draws our attention especially to what Mordechai was wearing on his horseback gallivant. “Mordecai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool.”

What does Mordechai look like? He looks just like a Persian palace. He has the crown and clothes of a king. He has the horse of his vizier. He looks like the empire. He looks like his enemy.

Having adopted the outfit of the oppressor, Mordechai soon acts like one. Under his instruction, the Jews go off on their own rampage, killing Haman, his sons, and 75,500 of their supporters. What Haman had planned for Mordechai, Mordechai did to Haman.

In Reform Judaism, we often gloss over this awkward ending, but it is very important. Victims given power can become no different to their persecutors. Here, the Megillah wants to slap us in the face with that fact. Look, it says, Mordechai looks just like everything he set out to oppose!

There must be a lesson in this for us. If we can look holy and we can look like oppressors, we have to think carefully about how we appear. 

Perhaps, then, I am right in my decision to always wear a collared shirt and suit jacket when I come to preach on Shabbat. After all, these clothes show that I’m serious and taking the services seriously. 

Ah, but the trouble is, arms dealers, politicians and tobacco lobbyists also wear suits. Aren’t I just dressing up like them, mimicking the clothing of 21st Century professionals, and subconsciously siding with them?

Perhaps, then, I need to switch to jeans and a t shirt? Oh, those haven’t been subversive since Tony Blair got out a guitar and rebranded the country as “Cool Britannia.” Mark Zuckerberg goes to work in jeans and a t-shirt, I’d hardly be making a different point.

Maybe I should copy our friends in Gateshead. After all, if I wear a black hat, long coat and beard, nobody will doubt that I’m Jewish. The people who stumbled to tell me why I looked Jewish before will now have a very clear answer.

Only the trouble is Haredim just dress like Eastern Europeans did 300 years ago. Theirs might fit someone else’s stereotypes better, but there’s nothing more authentic about it. Besides, I’m not convinced I’d look any less oppressive to a great number of Progressive Jews.

So how do we stop ourselves looking like our oppressors? In honesty, I think a Jew only looks like our enemy when we are determining what Jews should look like. When we stereotype, we repeat prejudices. When we gatekeep people for their clothes, we play into classism and prejudice. When we set out an image of a Jew, we exclude and hurt others. Deciding who looks Jewish is the least Jewish thing we can do.

So, what does a Jew look like? Open arms. An open heart. A broad smile. Curious eyes. A face that says, welcome, you are welcome here. A Jew looks like someone who knows that Jews look like everyone. 

Shabbat shalom.