THE MIKVEH

In 1980, I got married. In Israel.

Israel is a funny country. A democracy and also, a theocracy. Family matters fall under religious courts, including marriage. To get married in Israel, you have to be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. If you want a non-religious wedding, you have to go somewhere else. Another country. People of mixed faiths who want a neutrally religious ceremony have to leave the country to get hitched. The good news? An out-of-country marriage is honored in Israel. If you’ve made the contract, it’s legal, but a lot of people would prefer not having to go overseas to get married.

Mikveh in a modern hotel in Israel

The guy I was marrying was a Jew. Not much of a Jew, but to be fair, I wasn’t much of a Jew either. Not religiously, anyway. I had done a lot of reading, so I understood what it was about. I was good with it. It was medieval, but as medieval stuff goes, it was a good kind of 14th century.

Since the destruction of the Temple (by the Romans, in case you were wondering), the Mikveh’s use is almost entirely for the purification of Jewish women and men, and as part of the tradition for converting to Judaism. And before you ask, yes, people convert to Judaism. Not only because they are marrying a Jew. Some people do it because they find Judaism a religiously logical structure. As I do, even though I don’t practice it.

The Mikveh is used to purify people and sometimes, things. Like a body for burial, utensils for use in a Kosher home. But mostly, it’s for people.

An ancient Mikveh

Most forms of impurity can be fixed by immersion in any natural collection of water, but some things require “living water.” That is to say, moving water, such as springs or groundwater wells. The Mikveh is designed to simplify the whole process by offering a bathing facility that is permanently ritually pure and in contact with a natural source of water.

Back in the old days — like a couple of thousand years ago older — rivers and lakes were the place to go. But that water was cold. There were no hair dryers. You couldn’t get your fingernails done after your ritual bath. What about those lovely warm towels? The modern Mikveh doesn’t merely purify. The water is skin temperature and very comfortable — and clean. You exit to heated towels. Hair dressers. Manicures. And, of course, there is food and you can bet it’s Kosher.

“I have to do what?” I asked.

La-mickve-de-besalc, Spain

My friend, who was religious and regularly went to a Mikveh, was patient. She told me she’d make sure I went to a good one, where they would treat me properly. By which she meant they wouldn’t question me very hard about my level of religiosity. Which was fortunate. I didn’t have much to say except that I quite liked the way Judaism believed winning God to your side was more about doing the right thing and a lot less about repentance. You could repent your ass off as a Jew, but if you weren’t kind to the poor, diligent in your prayers and all that stuff, God was not going to be impressed. You might not get to be part of the rising of the dead to …

Well, maybe heaven. Maybe … something else. Judaism doesn’t have anything at all to say about the afterlife. Believe whatever you choose. It’s not in The Book. I like that. It was sensible. Although I didn’t practice, I appreciated it. Also, she told me to not tell them I was getting married because they were a lot stricter when you were getting married.

Stricter? About what? I’d been married before, after all.

“No,” she explained. “It doesn’t count. You didn’t marry a Jew.”

It was dizzying. She also explained that you had to walk into the water and take a complete dip. Every single inch of you had to be under the water. Including the top of your head and if you missed, they’d make you do it again until you did it right. You had to do it right so they would stamp your official purity ticket. The one you had to show to the Rabbi to prove you were pure enough to get married.

Say what?

In my lifetime, purity was not an issue. I’m pretty sure we abandoned purity sometime during the 1960s, right around the time when we smoked pot, but didn’t inhale. Oh, don’t be silly. Of course we inhaled.

Purity is not something you can ignore in Judaism. It’s a very big deal. Before I could get married, I had to be purified. Whether or not I’d ever do it again, I was going to do it at least this once. I was supposed to be peeved about this reversion to medievalism, but actually, I was intrigued. I’m a history buff. I like ancient rituals and this was an honest-to-God ancient ritual of which I would be a part.

Did I mention that you also have to be incredibly clean to be purified? Your fingernails and toenails have to be as clean as the day you were born.

A modern Mikveh — much like the one I used in Jerusalem

I did it. I was confused, especially because they spoke only Hebrew and mine wasn’t good, which is an understatement. But I cleansed, dipped, and got my stamp of purity approval. I liked it. It felt good. I felt cleansed. I thought if I’d been in a different place …

I left the Mikveh wishing life was offering me other choices. But I was missing the point.

Life always offers you other choices. The hard part is seeing them and doing something about them. Recognizing options can be extremely complicated, but the choices are always there. Grab those choices before they get away.

But I didn’t see them. Time passed and life moved on.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. Retired! Yay!

13 thoughts on “THE MIKVEH”

    1. Well, this is one of those weird things you don’t learn about until someone tells you. I didn’t know anything about it either, except in the most sketchy way. It wasn’t part of my upbringing, so I knew such a thing existed, but that was the limits of my understanding. That this ritual has existed for so many thousands of years virtually unchanged is kind of remarkable.

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  1. Do you watch Orange is the New Black? One of the inmates wanted to be Jewish (better prison food) and was told she had to be totally immersed before she would get her stamp of approval. Now this makes sense. Short story–the inmates walked through an open fence to a big lake. She submerged herself and, ta da! She was Jewish. Yup.

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    1. Well, it takes more than submersion. You also need a rabbi, a lot of study, etc. Just like converting to ANY religion. But yes, the submersion is a thing. It’s where Baptism came from and that is also why there’s still a kerfuffle in Christianity about “full” immersion vs. a few droplets on your head.

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  2. You did it, Marilyn. You not only did the Mikveh; you lived to write about it and expose the ignorants, such as I, to the practice and your experience of it. These days we could use a lot more of the 14th Century. It’s starting to look good. We all need a good purity bath.

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    1. Where have we gone when the 14th century is beginning to look like the future? The most interesting thing is how the Mikveh became baptism … and it’s really easy to see how that happened. Two big things have come directly from Judaism to Christianity with little change. Baptism is one and the importance of blood is the other. On a spiritual level (for Jews), your soul lives in your blood. THIS is why what you eat is so important because you ARE what you eat. Literally. If you eat violent animals (note that Kosher animals are all passive, vegetarians) you will be violent. And for all animals, you have to drain the blood because you can consume the flesh (though NOT eating flesh is a fine version of Koshrute), but never the blood.

      Judaism is very pragmatic in many ways, but there are deeper levels to it and most people know little or nothing about them because they are not available for the general population. Layers and layers and layers.

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