Don’t Go Near a Woman

by Salem Pearce, Mikveh Guide 

Salem PearceThis semester, as part of my rabbinic education, I am taking a class on the book of Exodus. Recently, we’ve been studying the account of the revelation at Sinai.  In the complicated choreography of Moses (and others) going up and down the mountain in chapters 19 and 24, a question arises regarding Moses’ instructions to the Israelites about preparations for receiving the Torah.

In Ex. 19:10-11, God tells Moses that the people should wash their clothes in order to be ready for God’s appearance on Sinai. In verse 14, we’re told that the people have done so, but in the next verse Moses makes his own addition to God’s instructions: אַל-תִּגְשו אֶל-אִשָּׁה, “Do not go near a woman.”

In the hetero-normative world of Torah, it would seem that Moses is now speaking to the men encamped at the base of the mountain. But God’s previous instructions were more inclusive. In verse 3, God tells Moses: “So you will say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel.” Concerned about the potential redundancy in “house of Jacob” and “sons of Israel,” Rashi identifies the first group as referring to women and the second, to men.

By comparison, the acceptance of the covenant in the last installation of the chumash (Five Books of Moses), in parshat Nitzavim, explicitly includes men, women, and children, both at that time and in the future (Deut. 29: 9-10).

It’s not at all clear what Moses intends with those four words; “Don’t go near a woman.” In all likelihood he is forbidding sexual intercourse. Indeed, this is how the phrase is almost universally understood.

The reason for the prohibition, following Rashi, is similarly widely accepted. Rashi believes that the abstinence is in order that the women may immerse themselves (in a mikveh) on the third day and be pure (spiritually ready) to receive the Torah. The idea being, that if any of the women in the camp had recently had intercourse, she would need three days to be considered ready for immersion, and in this case, ready for the revelation. (Rashi on Exodus 19:15) Rashi, then, is bringing women back into the picture with Moses’ directive— and is also introducing the idea of mikveh.

This is an incredibly powerful idea in and of itself: Women have an equal share in the giving of Torah, and they are required to be in a state of ritual purity to receive it. In a text that has so far seen women’s value as principally procreative (especially in Genesis), to be full participants in the foundational Jewish narrative is near revolutionary. And we’re doing so through the mitzvah of mikveh.

But what’s more, the text demonstrates the primacy of mikveh itself. This might be the first allusion to the mitzvah in Torah. We don’t see the patriarchs immersing, and while we do have midrashim about the matriarchs’ practicing niddah, there is nothing as strongly suggestive in the Torah to this point as Moses’ charge to the Israelites at Sinai.

In preparation for the peak moment of the Israelites’ relationship with God, women visit the mikveh. A holy teaching for a sanctified people. And yet another reason to immerse, in remembrance of this transformational moment.

10264870_10203535244519643_4414063284948966958_nSalem is a third-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College and was trained as a mikveh guide at Mayyim Hayyim in the spring. A native Texan, she writes from her home in Jamaica Plain about her winding physical and spiritual journeys at

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Our Family Doesn’t Do Bridal Immersions

by Sherri GoldmanAdministrative and Finance Director

Sherri's Thanksgiving TurkeyThere was exciting news as my husband’s entire family gathered at our house for Thanksgiving. One of our nieces, Kayla, had just recently become engaged to be married. I thought, what better way to celebrate Kayla’s engagement than with a Gift Certificate for her bridal immersion?

Earlier in the day I showed the Immersion Certificate to my husband, his sister and her husband (Kayla’s parents) to let them know I would present the gift certificate to Kayla after dinner.  Their response was mixed. My sister-in-law looked at me and said with some sadness in her voice, “I don’t know if that is a good idea. Kayla is not having a religious ceremony.”

My sister-in-law thought giving her a gift certificate for a bridal immersion might seem that we were suggesting Kayla’s wedding should be a traditionally Jewish ceremony and that we didn’t agree with her nonsectarian choices. Oy! I certainly hadn’t been planning on any family immersion drama during Thanksgiving.

I suggested to them that Kayla decide on her own about the Immersion Certificate, although I wondered if our Thanksgiving festivities would become a bit awkward with the gift of this traditionally Jewish bridal immersion. After all, as my mother-in-law commented, bridal immersion has never been a part of our family tradition.

After dinner, there was silence at the table as I stood and gave Kayla the Immersion Gift Certificate.  “This is to give you the option of including immersion as part of your wedding celebration,” I said. “We love you and are so happy for you and Evan.” The entire family looked towards Kayla, and then at each other in wonder (and relief) as she screamed, “This is incredible. I love having this as part of my wedding. I was just reading that brides do this. I’m so happy – thank you.”

From a thank you note that Kayla sent me soon after:

“The gift certificate for a bridal immersion at Mayyim Hayyim was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. I’m so glad to have the opportunity to partake in such a sacred tradition (and the absolute love and support of my family for giving me this gift- thank you so much!).

To me, this process symbolizes a rebirth, the start of a new chapter. I plan on having my immersion a few days before our wedding ceremony- it will give me a chance to wind down and really dive into the spiritual meaning of the celebration. So often we get caught up in the details of things, especially when it comes to weddings. It will allow me to connect on a deeper level, taking me back to my roots, to my ancestors and the traditions that have shaped me throughout my life. It’s like stepping out into the world for the first time and slowly inhaling a deep, full, breath. It is my new beginning- a beginning that I will feel both physically and mentally.

There is no other way I’d rather prepare for one of the most important days of my life. I’m incredibly excited for this opportunity- now I just have to wait six more months!”

Kayla will be the first woman in the family who will have a bridal immersion and we will all be there to celebrate with her – at Mayyim Hayyim.  What a wonderful and momentous opportunity which can well be the start of a new family tradition.

Kayla's Immersion Certificate

 Sherri is responsible for managing Mayyim Hayyim’s financial and building management operations. She always looks forward to festive gatherings with her family.

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A Rose by Any Other Name Would Not Smell as Sweet

by Rabbi Matthew Soffer

matt sofferWhen Romeo “oos and ahhs” over Juliet in the most famous scene of any of Shakespeare’s plays, he utters a line that is often misappropriated today: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Translation: His beloved’s name is irrespective of her identity, her beauty, and her “sweet smell.” However, Shakespeare doesn’t bestow such a happy ending upon these two lovebirds, and Romeo’s words prove to be fatally naive considering it is the very fact of their names, (Capulet and Montague, representing their warring families) that will seal their doom.  To simply import the phrase into common language as a truism misses the whole gist.  Names and identity are inextricable– in Shakespeare, in life, and in Jewish tradition.

I met Jeremy and Stacy when they were seeking a rabbi, not just to officiate at their wedding, but to lead them to a greater understanding of the traditions. In an early meeting, I asked what their Hebrew names were.  “Yirmiyahu ben David v’Yehudit,” said Jeremy.  Stacy looked at me somewhat insecure, or unsure of what to say.  So she came out with it: “I don’t know. I don’t think I have one.”

It’s not uncommon in my work with the Riverway Project at Temple Israel to encounter folks who either don’t have a Hebrew name or don’t know it.  Our community is one with virtually no barriers for folks coming from either mixed backgrounds or a “thin” sense of their Jewish identity.  But Stacy wasn’t satisfied with her answer.  And she wasn’t satisfied with not having an answer.  She wanted to affirm and celebrate her Jewish identity– and she did not want to stand under the chuppah until she felt authentically Jewish.

In the months that followed, we met often. We studied biblical stories and the Jewish wedding; she examined her own identity and how it reflects Jewish values.  And very naturally, she found her name.  As an individual devoted to teaching and healthcare she found resonance in the name Moriyah, which can be translated in a variety of ways. Together we rendered it, “teacher,” in the sacred sense of the term.  But that wasn’t enough.  She needed a ritual; an action that affirmed her name.  I taught her about the mikveh and explained what an extraordinary resource we have here in the Boston area, at Mayyim Hayyim.  And she agreed it would be a nice way of marking the transition and preparing for the wedding.  But what she didn’t expect was the transformative impact of the ritual.  In her own words:

“As I’ve entered adulthood, I have found a stronger and stronger connection with my Judaism.  I decided that it would be important to take the opportunity to truly confirm my identity as a Jewish woman preparing for marriage and my future relationship.  During the ritual at Mayyim Hayyim, I was shocked by how overcome I was by emotion.  The contemplation and preparation prior, the naming ceremony, and the actual immersion in the waters of the mikveh all helped to give me a sense of my own true identity as a Jewish woman, which I knew would prepare me for my life and my Jewish marriage.”

For Stacy “the rose smelled sweet” in large part because it was named, “a rose.” Stacy’s Jewish identity was strengthened and enriched because she was named Moriyah bat Shaul v’Chaya.  A rose cannot live and thrive, and cannot grow at all without water.  The living waters of Mayyim Hayyim enabled Stacy to immerse herself in her own authentic Jewish identity, and to stand upright under her chuppah, next to her beloved.  From the look on her face, it was the most alive she had ever felt.


Matthew Soffer is a rabbi at Temple Israel of Boston, where he directs the Riverway Project, an initiative of Temple Israel (TI) engaging individuals in their 20’s and 30’s in Jewish life. At TI he leads Ohel Tzedek, the social justice arm of the community, which practices congregation-based community organizing, through the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). Matt lives in Roslindale, with his wife Nicole, a clinical social worker and therapist, and their son Caleb, who turns two on Valentine’s day (yes, quite the romantic). 

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Past, Present, Future

by Walt Clark, Office Assistant10575385_10101407932399142_6711001650359510826_o

There was an ancient Roman god called Janus who was known as the god of beginnings and transitions. All entrance ways and exits fell under his purview. He was depicted as having two faces, one that faced the past and the other towards the future. Janus is not a widely known as other ancient gods, but at the beginning of every Roman religious ceremony, Janus was invoked at the start. Invoking Janus was considered to be a way to obtain good fortune and favor in every new endeavor.

I bring up this mythic figure because we are in that transitional part of the year. So much so, that we, to this day, still carry Janus in our calendar as the first month of the new year, January.

from the Vatican Museum

There is something about starting a new year that for many people gives a sense of pressing the ‘refresh’ button. People take on resolutions to better themselves and recommit to plans they have lost track of.

As some look forward, others look backwards. How can one expect to move into a new year if the old was especially difficult? Change can be unwelcome, even it’s just switching a number.

By the front entrance of Mayyim Hayyim there is a guest book filled with quotes and well wishes from people who have visited us. Recently, my eyes brushed over the pages as I was on my way out, and I saw this quote:

“Thank you for providing in the most beautiful and peaceful way, exactly what I needed.”

There are many quotes just like this throughout the guest book, each one unique and varied. Each marks a moment in time, between an individual’s past and their future. Depictions of Janus are shown as a face turned to the left and a face turned toward the right. Thinking about this, I realized what Janus is missing is a face turned towards you, to the present.

The present is a precious and fleeting thing as it flies between Janus’ gazes.  Between the entrance and the exit, people can hold ‘right now’ for a moment, and in doing so, take whatever they may need from it. The words in the Mayyim Hayyim guest book remind me that we provide a space to be present. For some, being able to experience the present allows them to feel a greater connection to the world around them. For others, it allows them to step away from the outside noise and hear the quiet voice inside themselves.

As we reach the beginning of the year, Mayyim Hayyim will continue to be a space for transitions; a space to find the moment between what was and what will be.

Walton Clark is Mayyim Hayyim’s office assistant and jack of all trades.  He is a working BAM keyboardist in Boston, leading the acid-funk outfit Roxo Gato as well as performing in a variety of groups. You can follow him on Twitter @walt_twitwalker and on Instagram @welaxer.

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Well, We’re Certainly Talking about the Mikveh Now…

by Naava Pasternak Swirsky

naavaBack in May, Penny Harow Thau and I published a book, There’s a Shark in the Mikvah! A Light-hearted Look at Women’s Dunking Experiences.  We had contacted friends and family and used social media to collect funny mikveh stories.  After the book came out, I wrote an article for the Times of Israel website advocating that women share their personal mikveh stories, that mothers share their stories with their daughters, and that women be more open about discussing the topic. Well, people are certainly talking about the mikveh now, but not for the reasons that we were hoping for.

By now, many people have heard that a prominent Orthodox Rabbi in the U.S. was arrested on charges of voyeurism for having installed hidden cameras in his community’s mikveh. The news was shocking to everyone, especially for the congregants of the Rabbi’s synagogue.  Anyone spying on someone who believes that they are alone is horrible. The fact that this occurred in a place that is imbued with holiness is truly disturbing.

When we were working on our book we spoke to many women about their mikveh experiences. We were looking for funny and inspiring stories that women hadn’t previously shared for reasons of modesty. We promised that the stories would remain anonymous.  Jewish Orthodox women are taught not to speak about their mikveh experiences. When Penny and I were collecting these stories we ended up having some great laughs with our contributors, but it also led to many serious discussions covering a range of topics.

Some women shared that for them, going to the mikveh is spiritually uplifting and they look forward to it. However, there are many women we spoke with, who, although quite committed to religious observance, struggle with the requirement of going to the mikveh. For many, keeping their visits secret from their children and neighbors can be daunting. Women on vacation or travelling for work have to find mikva’ot in unfamiliar towns and cities.  In addition, there are some women who shared with us that they have been struggling with infertility, or who have had miscarriages, which has made their visits to the mikveh emotionally overwhelming.

When our book came out, we were thrilled by readers who told us that reading it made them feel that they could, for the first time, talk about their mikveh experiences with other women. I hope that, despite, (and perhaps because of), these recent unfortunate events in D.C, women will keep talking about this beautiful mitzvah, whether what they have to say is difficult or joyfully amusing.

I’d like to end with a very short story from our book:

Gracefully Executed

Although I usually wear glasses, according to halacha (Jewish law), one is not allowed to tovel (immerse) in the mikveh while wearing anything. Because of this, I had a mikveh experience that I will never forget.

After removing my glasses, I blindly stumbled my way into the mikveh pool. On the second step, I lost my footing and, while trying to catch myself, ended up belly-flopping into the water.

The mikveh lady leaned over and said with a grin, “Kosher!”

We both burst out laughing.naava ratings

Naava Pasternak Swirsky has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is a founder and co-owner of AlphaPatent Associates, Ltd, an intellectual property firm. She is the mother of four and currently lives in Beit Shemesh, Israel.


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Red Tent-icipation

by DeDe Jacobs Komisar, Development Manager

DeDe_Jacobs-Komisar_pic_1_The big news around these parts is that Lifetime TV has made our own Anita Diamant’s iconic work, The Red Tent, into a miniseries. It airs December 7th and 8th, and stars Minnie Driver, Debra Winger, and some guys from Game of Thrones. Mayyim Hayyim is hosting its own screening of part one on December 2nd at Legacy Place Showcase Cinemas (get your tickets here while they’re still available).

For many, reading The Red Tent for the first time was a deeply meaningful experience. I asked around to see how some of the book’s fans are anticipating its transfer to the screen.

Anna Levin, a doctor who lives with her family in Israel, first read The Red Tent in high school as part of a class on Biblical texts and sexuality. “What really interested me was the idea of a female narrative of the familiar stories…What was really going on in the tent behind the mens’ stories?” While Levin generally thinks that movies don’t do justice to the books they portray, “I always end up watching the movie anyway…because of curiosity, I guess.”

Rebecca Missel, who works in development, also first read The Red Tent in high school. “It added another layer onto the stories of brave Biblical and modern women that I’d learned about. It opened the door to other great works of feminist midrash like The Five Books of Miriam, which remains my go-to for writing divrei Torah. The book also reinforced the notion to look between the margins for those who have been marginalized.”

Sara Bookin-Weiner works at the New Center for Arts and Culture here in Boston, and read The Red Tent this year, after meeting Anita Diamant at the Boston Jewish Music Festival. “Having an alternative reading to the stories I read in the Torah makes me feel empowered as a woman.” Bookin-Weiner says that the book inspired her to take a course on Jewish feminism.

Adred tentina Verson, an actor, was given The Red Tent as a gift from a fellow ensemble member of pleasureD, a play she developed, wrote, and performed with two other women. The gift was “in honor of our womanhood.” Verson related deeply to Dinah, the central character of the book. “Her strength made me hugely proud to be a woman, and inspired me to be as strong as she is, in love, friendship and loss. Dinah inspired me to honor the family of sisters that we all are.”

“Of course,” Verson says, “I’m nervous for the movie! So much of the story is Dinah’s internal view of things, which is always tricky to transfer to dialogue.” But, Verson continues, “I’m excited to visit that world again.”

We hope you are, too. Join us tomorrow night and/or tune in on Lifetime next week!

DeDe is the Development Manager at Mayyim Hayyim.  She also has Red Tent-icipation.

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The Mohel in the Mikveh

by Alan Green, Mikveh Guide

Alan J Green photoAfter 35 years of practicing as an OBGYN in Nashua, NH, I retired in April, 2012. So what did I do with all the free time that I thought I would have? Among other things, I became a Mikveh Guide at Mayyim Hayyim. I was accepted into the 8th cohort of Mikveh Guide Trainees, which graduated in the spring of 2013. This was a rather unique group because we were the first all-male cohort (we dubbed ourselves the “mikveh guys”). So, how did this come about?

I’ve been doing brisses since I became a doctor in 1970. There is no requirement for a mohel to undergo a formal process of certification, only to be a respected Jew in the community, be familiar with the halacha (Jewish law), and possess the skills to do circumcisions. Then, in the mid-1980’s, the Berit Mila Board of Reform Judaism came into being and offered courses of study for medical practitioners to be officially recognized as mohalim. I participated in their first certification course.

During my years as an active OBGYN, my practice partner was my wife. The demands of the office coupled with those of raising a family were almost all-consuming for us. Luckily, my understanding and ever-flexible wife was available to cover me when brisses came up. But needing to be out of the office to do a bris on only a few days’ notice was daunting, and I had to turn down many requests. After retirement, I looked forward to being more available as a mohel.

When I started out, the vast majority of my clients were Jewish couples who wanted their newborn sons to have a bris simply because that’s what they were supposed to do. Over the years, however, I encountered more and more interfaith families and new parents with non-Jewish extended family members. Initially, I think many such families were at the margins and not infrequently, lost to Judaism.

Nowadays, well over half of American Jews are married to non-Jews (more so among younger people), and many are trying hard to find a path that will let them, their spouses, and their children find a place within klal Yisrael (the community of Israel). Even among families with two Jewish parents, having a bris is sometimes seen as an optional archaic procedure, rather than as the essential covenantal ceremony that it has been for millenia. Exploratory phone calls from potential clients have gotten longer and more involved. It is not unusual to have several family members participating on speakerphone and for me to answer more questions involving the “why” of doing a bris. Over the years it has become important to figure out how to integrate families with considerable diversity into the ceremony. I saw the necessity to help these families negotiate the halachic mazes and to come out feeling accepted and included.

Enter Mayyim Hayyim. I had known of its existence, but I had never been to the place. Out of curiosity, I attended a pre-High Holiday program in 2012 and became intrigued. At a fundraising event (“Tapestry—Choosing a Jewish Life”), I saw the tears and joy of many who had incredible stories to share about Mayyim Hayyim. Anita Diamant’s mission to create a place that would be welcoming to those choosing to become part of the Jewish people really spoke to me. I applied to become a Mikveh Guide shortly thereafter.

There are many reasons that people come to immerse. Being involved with men immersing as part of the conversion process has been fascinating. No two stories are alike. Some conversion candidates need to undergo hatafat dam brit, a procedure involving drawing a drop of blood from the foreskin remnant of someone who has had a previous non-religious circumcision in order to validate it as a bris. The procedure is somewhat strange, anxiety-provoking, and often logistically difficult to arrange. I have been able to offer hatafat dam brit at Mayyim Hayyim just prior to immersion when needed, and to make the process more convenient, easier, and welcoming. At this year’s LimmudBoston event on December 7th, I will be leading a program entitled “Inclusive Brit Milah Ceremonies for Interfaith (and All) Families.” And as time goes by, I hope to continue welcoming Jews by choice to klal Yisrael more and more.

Alan Green has lived in Nashua, NH, since 1977. He is a mohel, retired obstetrician-gynecologist, and plays in a klezmer band. Alan is a proud Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh Guide.

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