At a conference on a ridiculously sunny spring day at New York University, I met a Jewish guy in his thirties who was planning on getting hitched this summer. When he heard that I was the director of a project focused on the lives of boys and men in the Jewish community, he expressed his frustration that he could not find anything out there on men and pre-nuptial mikveh. I remember having the same experience – Eighteen years ago, when I was getting ready for my own wedding, I couldn’t find anything to guide me. I think I found a section in an out-of-print Aryeh Kaplan (a well-known Jewish author) book about it, and since I had studied the basic laws of mikveh in rabbinical school, I started to wonder: How might the mikveh play a role in the spiritual preparation for marriage?
Before my wedding, I got together a group of my closest guy friends and one night, after we shared a few drinks and played cards, we headed out into the woods by the Wissahikon Creek in Philadelphia. The paths and the creek were lit by a nearly full moon.
While I didn’t say this aloud at the time, what I really wanted to do with the mikveh ritual was to symbolically cleanse myself of various sexual encounters that I had in the years before I had met by beloved. Not that I saw these encounters as inherently impure, but I wanted to start anew. I had read the teaching in Mishneh Berurah (606:21) related to mikvah on the High Holidays that “Some say that the reason for immersion is for teshuvah (repentance), according to which one should immerse three times” and I wanted my skin to be cleansed, and in some way I wanted whatever it is that I saw at the time as my spirit or soul or inner being to feel that the cleanse was authentic, life-changing, and holy.
I wasn’t really sure how the ritual would go, so one of my friends suggested that I go down to the bank of the creek and that guys would come down, one at a time, to give me some wisdom or blessing.
I sat on a large rock, and, one by one, my guy friends (some of whom had already been under a chuppah (Jewish wedding canopy, some not) sat beside me and gave me the gifts of their words. I wish I could say that I still remember the words they said, but they long slipped out of my memory. What I do recall is the emotional connection – the sense that I was supported as I took on the awesome responsibility of being someone’s life partner.
I took off my clothes and walked out into the water. The water was pretty cold, which somehow seemed like the right thing for the ritual. I closed my eyes, squatted down, dipped fully into the water three times, stood up, said the bracha “al t’vilah” (blessing for immersion), and looked up towards the sky.
Eighteen years later I can say that it still feels like that pre-wedding triple dip worked. It re-oriented me, cleansed me, and readied me. These days, when I officiate a wedding, I highly recommend mikveh. Sometimes the couples I work with choose an actual mikveh built for the purpose of collecting rainwater to soak in and sometimes they jump in oceans, lakes, or creeks. Either way, I hope that they experience the chills that I got on that moonlit night by the Wissahikon.
Rabbi Daniel Brenner is leading a national effort through Moving Traditions (www.movingtraditions.org) to train a cadre of educators and mentors who can connect the ethical insights of Jewish life to the challenges facing today’s teen boys. Brenner’s commentaries have been featured in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Jerusalem Post, Forward, Jewish Week and on the NPR show The Infinite Mind. In 2009, he was named by Newsweek Magazine as one of America’s most influential rabbis.