The first time I saw a mikvah I had no idea what it was. My college roommate took me to a small building behind her synagogue that looked like a storage unit. We entered a dimly lit area where a small, green-tiled pool dominated the shabby room. It was hardly appealing, and I was shocked when she told me that Jewish women immersed themselves in it before they got married.
"My mother told me that the rainwaters that fill it are like the waters of Eden," she said as we left.
The next time I encountered a mikvah was in "The Ritual Bath," a mystery novel written by Faye Kellerman. While the moving descriptions of the Orthodox women who went to the mikvah had a powerful hold on me, I never thought that I would go to one myself.
Several years later, I made a decision that was life-altering: I decided to leave my law practice and pursue my passion for Jewish learning. I wanted to do something special and spiritually significant to elevate my choice into something more than just a career change. That's when it hit me. I would begin my journey into Jewish learning by preparing myself in a very Jewish way: I would study the texts about ritual purity and go to the mikvah. To this day, it stands as one of the highlights in my quest to find ways to live a meaningful Jewish life.
Traditionally, the mikvah is a thoroughly private experience, so I feel somewhat uncomfortable writing about it. But I take some comfort in knowing that along with other traditional Jewish rituals that are being redefined today, there is renewed interest in mikvah observance as modern Jewish women discuss, explore and participate in mikvah for the first time.
The laws of family purity, or taharat hamishpacha, date back to biblical times. There are a lot of misconceptions and negative connotations about these laws, which have been viewed by Jews who are not familiar with the reasons behind the laws as primitive or demeaning to women. But the mikvah lies at the heart of Jewish life because it offers us the opportunity to become spiritually pure and to perpetuate Jewish life and Jewish living.
Leviticus 18:19 and 20:18 prohibit marital relations during a woman's menstrual cycle and for seven "spotless" days thereafter. A woman goes to the mikvah to become spiritually pure -- not physically clean, as those who misunderstand the ritual suggest. If we understand menstruation as a reflection of a woman's unique potential to create life, then we can appreciate a ritual that honors the renewal of a woman's capacity to conceive.
Mikvah attendance requires conscious, vigorous preparation, including bathing, washing and combing the hair, cutting fingernails and removing all jewelry, makeup or anything that is a barrier between a woman and the mikvah waters. It gives a woman the opportunity to luxuriate in being "squeaky clean" and offers a time to focus on the miracles of being a woman.
Mikvah has traditionally been used for conversions, kashering utensils and preparing the dead for burial. But today, Jewish women are reclaiming mikvah to celebrate important lifecycle events and provide meaningful rituals in times of loss, tragedy and sickness. Women also go to the mikvah to mark the onset of menopause, the end of a marriage, a trip to Israel and, in my case, a change in careers.
Many community mikvahs are open to all Jewish women before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the purpose of spiritually preparing themselves for the year ahead. What a wonderful mitzvah to add to our lives as we embrace the New Year and the joys of being a Jewish woman.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.