In recent years, the topic of mikva (ritual immersion) has changed from a topic which is taboo to one of the most talked about issues in the religious sector, discussed not only in closed quarters but on the social networks as well. Along with the growing interest in the connection between body and soul, discourse on body and sexuality, awareness of sexual abuse and an increase in the number of groups and women studying sexuality and halakha, there are also social and political aspects relating to mikva use in Israel, including in the discussion of immersion before going up to the Temple Mount, the conduct of the mikva attendants and more.
As a result of this, coupled with the fact that they are currently studying the laws of ritual immersion, the Susi Bradfield Institute for Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) chose to hold its annual symposium exploring the subject.
“Because we have dedicated this year to learning about the laws of family purity, this year’s symposium is about the mikva immersion experience, both male and female, as well as relevant challenges that arise from this topic,” said program director Rabbanit Devorah Evron. “So much of the halakhic discourse that takes place even today is conducted by men, which is especially ironic considering the fact that this particular act is mostly executed by women,” she said. “As cultivators of the next generation of female religious leaders, the WIHL sees community engagement that is rooted in current events as paramount.”
After opening remarks from Rabbanit Evron and Rabbi Ohad Teharlev, director of the Israeli programs at Midreshet Lindenbaum, the 100 + attendees split into small study groups moderated by the WIHL’s fellows, covering the sources of water immersion in the Torah, Jewish Law, and literature.
Afterward, everyone re-convened for the first panel. Moderated by Aluma Florsheim-Dor, a second-year WIHL fellow, the session featured Rabbi Nir Manusi, an educator of Hassidut and Jewish Culture, and Na’ama Pelser, director of the “Avodah Shebaguf” center which offers classes and programs grappling with issues relating to Judaism and femininity. Pelser, who is also a social activist in the field of mikvaot, was one of the women who behind a 2016 petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice that ruled that women are permitted to immerse themselves in the mikva without supervision if they so desired. “It is my sacred mission to turn the mikva immersion into a meaningful experience for as many women as possible,” she declared. “The more independence women have while immersing, the more connected they will become to themselves and to the spirituality of the immersion.”
Rabbi Manusi spoke about male immersion, a topic that is rarely discussed as it comes with fewer halakhic details and urgency: “The mikva is a place for rebirth; it begins with one’s desire to sanctify and purify himself. The immersion grants one with an inner light, that he in turn shines upon others.”
The second panel of the evening was moderated by Dr. Hannah Hashkes, a third year WIHL fellow, and included Rabbanit Rivka Shimon from the “Women of the Mikdash” organization, as well as Rabbanit Sarah Segal-Katz, a bridal and couples counselor, and Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet, founder and Director of the Eden Center, an organization that strives to improve the mikva experience.
Rabbanit Rivka Shimon praised the spiritual quality of immersing in the mikve before ascending the Temple Mount, a halakhic requirement of both men and women before visiting the holy site: “I feel a direct connection to God when I do so; it’s all about me and the divine. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the mikvas are considered public domain and there is a halakhic dispute surrounding the Temple Mount, the official policy is that women cannot use the mikva as preparation to ascend the Temple Mount. Since I have no other options, I have on occasion advised single women to pretend she is married, just so that she will be allowed to immerse herself,” Shimon disclosed.
Due to this state ownership, Rabbanit Sarah Segal-Katz also raised the question of who immersion belongs to, after all? To the woman or to an outsider? Dr. Naomi Marmon Grumet also echoed the need for all of the involved parties to be focused on the woman’s experience and her needs: “The mikva attendants could be much more attentive, sensitive and helpful to women in order to make their experience better,” she said. “Knowing how to transform the mikva experience, which entails so many laws and preparations, into a truly spiritual experience requires training that includes constructive communication and an understanding of how to relate to the women who immerse.”
Rabbanit Evron concluded: “So much of the halakhic discourse that takes place even today is conducted by men, which is especially ironic considering the fact that this particular act is mostly executed by women. Many people struggle with these issues and wish to see them addressed; as cultivators of the next generation of female religious leaders, we view the practical applications of our halakhic studies and community engagement as paramount.”