My Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column for November 2014: Done with Mikvah Dunking?

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic advice column

Dear Rabbi,

On the one hand, after reading about a rabbi who repeatedly used the ritual of women immersing as an opportunity to engage in voyeurism, I’m turned off to the whole idea of ritual bathing in a mikvah.

On the other hand, I know I’ll feel guilty about abandoning one of my religious practices, which had meaning for me in the past. What should I do?

Slams Dunking in Teaneck

Dear Slams,

Rituals are a potent part of your relationship to your culture and heritage. And special relationships are fragile. They hinge both on predictable consistency and on intangible magical elements.

The relationships embedded in the most prevalent mikvah-bath ritual are as complex as a double helix. One strand of complexity is that the mikvah bath permits Orthodox women, who refrain from sex with their husbands during menstruation, to resume the intimate sexual portion of their relationships. And for women from long-standing Orthodox family lines, another strand of the complexity of the ritual is how the mikvah connects them in a magical way to the innermost lives of their mothers, who practiced the same formal mikvah procedure.

Dipping in a mikvah also is an integral rite in a conversion to Judaism. And that is where the latest scandal occurred. To many of us, the bad acts of a rabbi were troubling enough to disrupt the magic of the ritual, that tacit allowance we permit ourselves that makes a bath into an enchanted personal transformation. A debauched rabbi violated the privacy of the immersion of numerous women converts. For many who heard it, the sad news of those acts poisoned the sacred well of the mikvah.

I tried to understand the plight of my sisters by thinking in terms of an analogy. As an avid daily lap swimmer for many years, I know how refreshing and invigorating and healthy a workout in the pool can be. And yet I also discovered that at times, the positive values of water can be disrupted. Sometimes because of errors or ineptness, the pool I swim in gets too hot for comfortable lap swimming or the chlorine chemical level gets too high and the water becomes toxic. That for sure spoils the enjoyment of my swimming. And it can affect my health. But I work hard to get that fixed. And I keep coming back to swim. It’s a consistent, even a constant part of my life.

Sure, I know that my inconveniences in lap swimming are not anywhere near equivalent to violations of a woman’s intimate privacy during her performance of a religious ritual. But my suggestion to you, via my loose metaphor, is that you try your best to continue to do those healthy positive things that you do, those activities of your life that in crucial ways define you.

When the motions of your life are disrupted, when you get distracted from the poetry of your religion, I urge you to bounce back, and to strive with vigor to set your faith and practices straight and to restore the magic to your rituals.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy was ordained at Yeshiva University and earned his Ph.D. in religious studies at Brown University. He has published several new Kindle Editions at Amazon.com, including “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi: The Greatest Talmudic Advice” which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

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