Andrea Jacobs, Director of Education for Keshet, shares her thoughts on inclusive mikveh usage in her guest post. Andrea will be co-facilitating a panel on inclusion at our Gathering the Waters International Mikveh Conference.
By traditional standards, I’m an unusual mikveh user. As a single woman and a liberal Jew, there are no halakhic imperatives for me to immerse in a mikveh. Nonetheless, I find myself returning again and again to mark different moments in my life. I love that the ritual requires me to attend to the connection between body and soul and to the sacredness of my body. And I love the feeling of being held by water – for me it is a physical reminder that I am beloved by the Divine just as I am.
My love of mikveh and the rituals surrounding it didn’t come easily. As a young woman, I was outraged by the rigid sense of gendered roles in Jewish ritual and the way mikveh seemed to reinforce them.
But before I could reject it outright, the Jewish feminist movement began to reclaim and redefine a whole host of Jewish rituals and practices, including mikveh. We reclaimed the laws of family purity as a means of celebrating our bodies as women. Taking ownership over the mikveh as a sacred space, we created rituals to mark all the moments of our embodied lives.
From my perspective, one of the most exciting changes around mikveh today is the way we are beginning to break down the rigidly gendered ideas of who comes to immerse and why. No longer limited to men, converts, and menstruating women, we are working to promote the idea that everybody is welcome to engage in the beautiful and ancient ritual of immersion.
Mikveh is one of the rituals that demands us to be both physically and spiritually vulnerable. We strip away all that we use to cover ourselves in the world and immerse our bodies in water in front of witnesses. Even for those of us whose physical bodies align with our gender identities this can be a daunting experience – how much more so for those of us who are transgender or genderqueer? Immersion in the mikveh is a moment when we must actualize our belief that all of us, in our uniqueness, are created b’tselem Elohim – in the image of the divine. We can work to reclaim mikveh for everybody, but the trick is finding a mikveh that will both welcome and support every body.
Mayyim Hayyim is such a place. With support from Keshet, a national grassroots organization dedicated to the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews in Jewish life, Mayyim Hayyim trained its staff and mikveh guides to be sensitive to the needs and concerns of GLBT Jews. From the GLBT Safe Zone sticker on Mayyim Hayyim’s physical and online “doors” to the intentional recruitment of transgender mikveh guides, Mayyim Hayyim is leading the way in making mikveh accessible and comfortable for every Jewish body. The barriers are coming down, and it is up to each of us to enact the concept of b’tselem Elohim, to transform the mikveh so that everyone, regardless of gender identity or expression, can feel the embrace of the living waters and know that they are beloved just as they are.