The most important aspect of Life Transitions (the subject of the current issue of Liturgy) is that they just keep right on coming. No sooner have you recovered from the last one and settled down comfortably on the metaphorical sofa of your new life then look out! Here comes another set of headlights, screaming toward you at dangerous speed. There is no rest. I myself have just reached the period of life where the teeth become somewhat fragile. It’s a bit less disturbing than puberty was, but still.
In the second article of our current issue, Rabbi Margaret A. Holub describes her community’s experience of reclaiming and repurposing a traditional ritual so that it serves them through years and years of life transitions of various sorts: the mikveh.
In addition to its use as part of the process of conversion to judaism, mikveh is traditionally performed by married women following menstruation and childbirth. Holub and her community, informed by a feminist critique which values menstruation as a normal and healthy process, do not immerse themselves for this reason, but they have discovered a truly astonishing variety of occasions of life transition which mikveh has proven to be a rich and valuable means of ritualizing.
We arrive at the water’s edge not because we are married women in our fertile time of life, counting our ‘‘clean days’’ and looking forward to returning to our marital beds. Nor are we new brides, nor converts nor scribes. We come to the mikveh because we are about to undergo a mastectomy; because we are sending a child off to school; because we have been raped; because we are unemployed and seek strength to look for a job; because our parents are becoming frail and we are preparing to step forward in new roles to help them; because we are about to move house; because we are about to read for the Torah scroll for the first time at our Bat Mitzvah; because we have had a long illness and wish to imagine that we might feel better one day; because a new year is about to begin and we hope to enter it joyously and expectantly. Our grandmothers and their grandmothers experienced some of these same transitional moments in life, though they did not mark them as we do at the mikveh. But the water into which we step is the same.
What other traditional ritual practices might we consider repurposing?
Margaret A. Holub (2012): Immersion and Transformation: A Community Explores the Mikveh , Liturgy, 27:4, 19.
Rabbi Margaret A. Holub serves at Mendocino Coast Jewish Community, Albion, California.