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 It had seemed to me outdated and misogynistic.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 · theology · torah

It is not your fault

This week I was sick.

Normally I’d think it self-indulgent to talk about that, but here in Manchester, where Disability and sickness play such a key part in so many congregants’ lives, I think it’s important to discuss it. For those of us with chronic illness and disability, sickness isn’t just something that happens, but something that has multi-layered meanings.

It was just flu. Normally, it wouldn’t be worthy of remark. But I have a spine disease for which I take injections of immunosuppressants, so the flu knocked me out cold. I slept pretty much non-stop for three days. I just ate bread.

But that wasn’t the worst bit. Worse than that, the spine disease I have is made better by exercise and aggravated by inactivity. So after just a day of doing nothing, my joints started to fuse and swell. My back, neck and jaw were in pain.

But that wasn’t the worst bit. Worse than that, sickness is mind-numbingly boring. I feel like a healthy person in my head, and like my body is just getting in the way of all the things I want to do. I looked at my to-do-list, and wondered how a previous me ever imagined I’d have the energy for all of it.

But that wasn’t the worst bit. Worse than that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was my fault.

No matter how progressive I am, or how far removed those kinds of ideas are from my own theology, I couldn’t escape believing, at some level, that this sickness was a punishment.

It’s not hard to see why. That is a major lesson from this week’s parashah. It concerns צָרָ֑עַת – commonly translated as ‘leprosy’, although it would be better understood as ‘fungal skin disease’.[1] From the sounds of the text, this was quite a common infection that afflicted people. It appeared as white blotches, then disappeared after a few days.

When suspected of having this infection, a person is required to bring themselves before the priest who, after examining it, would declare them impure.[2] The person with this impurity is then completely ostracised. They rent their garments and pull their hair as if in mourning. They go through the streets shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” They are prohibited from living with the others and remain in isolation until all signs of the disease have disappeared.[3] If the infection disappears, the priest performs a sacrificial sin-offering on their behalf to purify them.[4]

What is clear throughout this text is that, if somebody has this kind of sickness, they are morally dangerous. It is not just that their medical state might be infectious; it is that the guilt from the sin they’ve committed might be spread too. By the very fact of being sick, the person with fungal skin disease poses a risk to the entire community.

Their danger comes from the fact that they have done wrong. The Torah makes this even clearer later in the book of Numbers. There, Miriam criticises Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. As punishment, God afflicts her with this very fungal skin disease. She is forced to exclude herself and ritually immerse to cleanse herself of guilt.[5] Clearly, wrongdoing can be punished by sickness in the world of Torah.

In the world of the rabbis, the very fact of becoming sick is evidence of having sinned.[6] The Talmud tells us: “The Sages taught: One who became ill and tended toward death, they say to him: Confess, as all those executed by the courts confess.”[7] More than that, according to Rav Oshaya, just thinking about committing a sin can be enough to bring on skin diseases. This comes as part of an overall sugya that spells out how sins are punished by stillbirth, infant mortality, spousal death, exile and war.[8]

These ideas are, I hope, troubling to the modern mind. We might want to apologise for our forebearers by saying that they couldn’t have known. They didn’t have access to the medical knowledge we do today. They didn’t know where diseases came from or why they spread.

But that doesn’t answer the question: why, knowing all that we do, do these ideas persist? For all our scientific advancements, there is still so much stigma and blame attached to sickness. I began by apologising for even talking on the matter, because just mentioning sickness can feel like a burden. Moreover, despite medical diagnosis and a better understanding of biology than the rabbis, I cannot shake from myself the feeling that my illness is somehow a result of personal failings.

True enough, some aspects of bad health are down to my own actions. Every time I light up a cigarette, I am conscious that I’m endangering my health and making my condition worse. But it’s also interesting how quick people are to ascribe blame when they encounter somebody who is ill. Any sickness of any kind is often attributed to smoking, lifestyle, weight or, failing any of those, just a bad attitude.

It should be unsurprising then, that some of this feeling of blame carries over into our theology. In a culture that seeks to attribute responsibility for sickness onto sick people, it makes sense that people would also imagine that divine retribution plays a role.

I think all these different explanations for sickness – whether in the Torah, the Talmud, or our own society – come out of people’s own fear of lacking control. Ultimately, there is no telling who will get sick, or when, or why. The healthy want to imagine it could never happen to them. The sick want to find some meaning in it all. So we grasp for explanations. We invent reasons and rituals that explain away our fears. In our very human need for order, we imagine that God has some great plan that is being enacted on us.

Part of me wants to leave it there, and say that ultimately the truth about why people get sick is unknowable. Our rabbis did entertain this theory of divine retribution, but they left open others, never arrogant enough to claim they had a hold on absolute truth. As with so many things, questions of suffering are left to the Great Mystery that lies beyond our understanding.

But if we leave the question open, we leave room for an answer that is unconscionable. We leave open the possibility that the God we worship makes children disabled as punishment for the sins of their parents or their own past lives. We allow for the possibility that God exacts vengeance on people’s bodies through cancers and strokes. When we say we don’t know, we run the risk of allowing this dominant discourse of blame to have some strength.

In so doing, we may inadvertently legitimate the punitive measures implemented by governments to assess and control Disabled people. We may feed into sick people’s own narratives of self-hate and despair.

No. There are many things we cannot say with certainty. Faced with suffering, silence is often the best response. But there is one thing we must repeat, over and over again until it is believed: it is not your fault.

It is not your fault.

blame

I gave this sermon at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community on Parashat Tazria, Saturday 6th April 2019.


[1] cf Jacob Neusner, The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism

[2] Lev 13:3-7

[3] Lev 13:45-46

[4] Lev 14:7

[5] Num 12

[6] cf Solomon Shechter, Studies in Judaism

[7] Shabbat 32a

[8] Shabbat 32b-33b

judaism · sermon · social justice · torah

Can we talk about menstruation?

This week’s portion is about menstruation. Listener’s discretion is advised.

When Nathan asked me to sermonise on this parasha, the first thing I said was: “Are you sure? Is this… is this definitely in the lectionary?” I was surprised to even think that it was a topic to discuss.

Yes, it’s there, and there’s no getting round it. I did even try. I looked through the rest of the parasha. The section immediately before it dealt with the defiling force of semen; the one just before with scaly skin diseases. Whatever I did I was going to have to talk about bodily functions, and the one portion for today looks at menstrual blood.

Nathan said: “It’s OK. You don’t have to do it on exactly the topic in the parasha.” Why was it that this topic made us both so uncomfortable? What is it about this very normal and natural process, integral to human reproduction and a big part of many congregants’ lives, that should set it outside of discussion in synagogue?

I know of a senior Liberal rabbi who was so affronted to hear a Bat Mitzvah student speaking on the topic of menstruation that he literally heckled during her sermon. He was embarrassed. So was everybody.

It can’t be that menstruation isn’t a suitable topic for discussion in synagogues per se, because it is right here in the text of the Torah. All over the world, people in different communities will be studying this passage today. It can’t be that this topic is out of place in a Liberal synagogue. If anything, our track record of feminist thought and openness to ideas should make us more willing to talk about difficult topics.

Here’s the reason: menstruation is taboo. It’s taboo for me. It was taboo for that senior Liberal rabbi. It’s so taboo that, at least in the male and mixed spaces I move in, it almost never gets talked about, and when it does, it’s spoken about in euphemisms and hushed tones. It’s that time of the month. I can’t help but feel that the best way to deal with a taboo is to face it head on. If we feel uncomfortable about it, I think, perhaps, the best thing for us to do, is to feel uncomfortable together.

Presumably menstruation also made the redactors of the Torah uncomfortable. As it’s worded in the Torah: when blood comes out of a woman’s body, she is unclean. Not just her, but anything she touches is unclean. The bed she slept on, the chair she sat on. Even if she licks a thread to stitch a garment, that whole garment becomes unclean. Anyone who touches her becomes unclean by association. According to Rashi, if anyone touches her accidentally, they’re unclean for seven days. If they do it deliberately, they can be cast out of the community altogether. It is a very negative reaction.

But more than that – it is punishing. We learn elsewhere in the Torah that if somebody is unclean they have to stay outside the camp. They are to be isolated away from everybody else. They can’t see their family. They can’t participate in Temple rituals. They can’t earn a living or gain social status. Something about menstruation made the authors of this text so uncomfortable that they wanted to exclude women who were bleeding. That was their way of dealing with taboo: to get it out of sight and out of mind.

The first thing anybody will notice is how gendered this is. Unlike other parts of the Bible, which may well include songs and stories by women, the books of Leviticus and Numbers are unambiguously written by men. These are the works of male Temple priests, most likely living in Jerusalem, just before the great Babylonian exile.

These rabbis make a clear connection between women, menstruation and dirt. The Torah text makes that clear, speaking about it in very gendered language. We can compare this to how men are treated for secreting semen. A man would be unclean and kept outside the camp for one day. A woman for seven days. Moreover, the chances of a man having a nocturnal emission are pretty rare. For most adult, pre-menopausal women, menstruating is a monthly event. This means that women would spend most of their lives excluded from society. This is, then, powerful men, telling women who make them uncomfortable that they don’t belong in society.

In the Talmud, restrictions only became worse. The rabbis ruled that a woman couldn’t be considered clean until seven days after her period had finished, whereas the implication of the biblical passage is that it ends seven days after the start. They purposefully narrowed the amount of time women could spend in public space and have sex.

This attitude must, of course, have no place in the modern world. And yet. And yet. Right now, in most Orthodox and many Masorti communities, menstruating women are regulated by the rules of niddah – the Talmudic codification of what women can and can’t do while bleeding. This involves sleeping in separate quarters, not able to see their husbands. It involves ritual immersions to “cleanse” themselves of the “pollutant” of menstruation. It forms a big part of life for many religious Jews.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be gained from it. Many women talk about the joy of the mikveh, the ritual cleansing bath, and the relief of not having to see men when they’re at their most vulnerable. People have made these rules into sources of strength and empowerment. As much as we might acknowledge that, however, this is a practice rooted in patriarchal stigma against women’s bodies.

Even in secular society, the menstrual taboo continues as a major force for controlling women’s lives. The amazing Jewish feminist, Gloria Steinem, writes: “what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could notClearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event. Men would brag about how long and how much. Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day. To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.”

She’s joking, of course, and things have come on a long way since the 1980s when she wrote it. But it speaks to an important point: women really are demonised for menstruating. They really are ignored by doctors for it. They really are excluded from power for it, as happened in the rhetoric used against Hillary Clinton when she was running for President. Women’s exclusion for menstruation may not be codified in law today as it was in ancient Israel, but it is still a major barrier to participation in public life.

This has become a key topic for women’s rights campaigners. The result of the taboo on menstruation is that teenage girls are skipping school when they’re menstruating because they fear the risk of bleeding in public, and the shame and stigma attached to that. This is as much a problem in the UK as it is anywhere else in the world.

Over the course of a lifetime, the average woman will spend £18,450 on products for dealing with menstrual blood and pain. On top of all this, thanks to a bizarre policy, sanitary products for menstruation are taxed at 5%. And here’s where the problem goes from tragedy to farce: according to research by the Guardian from the beginning of this month, the money levied by the tampon tax is being used to fund – wait for it – anti-abortionists. The government had pledged to scrap the tax but, in the last budget, decided to instead keep it and distribute some of the money to women’s health charities. Perhaps a noble endeavour, but one of those charities is called Life, which describes abortions as “death penalties” for foetuses, calls aborted foetuses “corpses” and warns young women against terminating their pregnancies. This is not the policy of a backwater fundamentalist country, but something that is happening in Britain right now. Women are paying an unavoidable tax, only to have that money spent on restricting their rights. No wonder feminists are up in arms to end this tax on tampons.

I began by saying this topic made me uncomfortable, and perhaps it made you uncomfortable too. Menstruation may well be a taboo, but what does that taboo do? It stops women accessing public life. It stops girls being able to access school. It costs inordinate amounts of money. There are, unfortunately, girls who still don’t know what periods are until they get their first one and think it is a sign of impending death.

Our silence can be dangerous. Menstruation might make us uncomfortable to talk about, but if we stay silent on it, we could be letting down loads of women and girls. So although it may be difficult, perhaps it’s time to break that taboo.

Shabbat shalom.

night-tampon-01-1521830652

I gave this sermon at South London Liberal Synagogue on 29th April 2017, before I had begun at rabbinical school. When I delivered it, I looked out at the congregation and near panicked. I was especially worried that I would upset the sensibilities of older members. After the service, many of these same older members came up to express their agreement and chime in their concerns about period poverty. It was a real moment of realising how open I could be with a community I knew well. I think, if I were to give the sermon today, I would be far less apologetic.