Reclaiming the mikveh: how Jews are adapting the traditional ritual
The ancient water ritual, used for cleansing purification and transformation, has become more inclusive and welcoming to trans, non-binary and Jews of Colour.
The Jewish mikveh is a holy bathing pool used for purification rituals. It’s existence is, according to Jewish law, more important than the synagogue, adapted over centuries, to celebrate big life events like marriage and birth, transitions such as recovering from illness, and to soothe grief, or cleanse after experiencing trauma. Yet the traditional mikveh does not serve all members of the Jewish community.
Like a sort of less relaxing spa, the mikveh ritual takes place in a small, underground pool of naturally-sourced water, with a blessing recited while you immerse. Before entering the pool, you’re required to remove anything that acts as a barrier between your body and the water – including piercings, jewellery and all clothing – and the whole thing is segregated by binary sex, with separate pools, and uses, for males and females.
The whole setup can be uncomfortable for, or even totally excluding of, trans, nonbinary and queer Jews. And they’re not the only ones: for disabled Jews who require an aquatic lift to immerse in the mikveh, there are few locations that provide such accessibility. Meanwhile Jews of colour (JoC) often face discrimination in what are traditionally white-dominated spaces that may even put them off taking part completely.
Zuriel Biran is a 26-year-old graduate student and non-profit worker from Chicago. As a nonbinary, trans Jew of colour, he has experienced the exclusion first-hand.
“I know that not everyone will feel comfortable attending [the mikveh] if that binary concept of gender is how the event is structured,” he says. “That can induce dysphoria for some people and that’s not the headspace that any of us need to be in when we’re trying to go through this spiritual process.”
Although mikveh is noted for its importance in moments of transition, particularly for converting to Judaism, the literal transition that trans and gender nonconforming Jews undertake is, unsurprisingly, not mentioned in Jewish law. Equally predictably, other queer existences are also absent in official guidelines for mikveh usage.
Elliot Kukla from Ontario, Canada, was ordained in 2006 as the first openly trans rabbi. Before he transitioned, his wife at the time was in the process of converting to Judaism but because they were a lesbian couple, the conservative mikveh in their community turned her away. In the aftermath of this initial rejection, the couple received support and care from a queer synagogue that set up a specific mikveh for Kukla’s ex-wife. This inspired Kukla to later attend rabbinical school.
The experience pushed Kukla, who is also disabled, to deeply examine how traditionally excluded members of the community can relate to ritual practice and the Jewish faith as a whole. He helped put together the Trans Torah, a collection of essays, poems, blessings and rituals for genderqueer, transitioning and trans people, but with the flexibility to be adopted by all those who find the original Torah constrictive or reductive.
“A queer, disabled expression of mikveh to meet what the world looks like now, to me is a very traditional expression of mikvah” he says, “in [the way] that Judaism is always growing and changing to meet the world.”
A recent 2021 study found that Jews of colour (JoCs) often feel out of place in Jewish ritual and religious spaces. The reasons for this are complex and vast, but some key findings of the survey highlight how JoCs experience racism as both microaggressions and “overt challenges to the validity of their Jewishness”. In settings like the synagogue, for example, JoCs are often mistakenly identified as security guards, nannies or the non-Jewish partner of a white Jewish person.
With mikveh being such a crucial element of Jewish cultural and religious practice, Rebekah Erev, a queer artist and Hebrew priestess, founded Queer Mikveh Project to provide alternative mikveh experiences inclusive of all, particularly queer, trans, non-binary, disabled Jews and Jews of colour. Community leaders volunteer to hold specially designed rituals held in open bodies of water like the sea, or a private pool. The emphasis on spiritual connection is less about where and how mikveh takes place and more about taking part in the way you feel most comfortable.
Zuriel Biran, who has attended Queer Mikveh Project events, feels that spaces designed specifically for queer Jews and Jews of colour are crucial.
“These ways that we can be in community with each other without having to feel like we need to prove ourselves to anyone.” he says. “Where we can just be around other Jews who see us for who we are, and other people who don’t identify as Jewish but connect to the rituals.”
Boston’s Mayyim Hayyim, meaning “living waters”, is part of the Rising Tide Open Waters Network, a global collective of mikva’ot [the plural of mikveh] that embraces a more open, inclusive and accessible approach to mikveh. A particular focus for Mayyim Hayyim is ensuring that those who experience all types of trauma, including trauma that stems from oppression and marginalisation, feel not only able to immerse in the mikveh, but actively supported in the process from beginning to end.
“Racism and white supremacy harm us in our bodies, and especially harm Black, Indigenous people and people of colour,” explains Lucy Marshall, Director of Rising Tide at Mayyim Hayyim. “Mikvah is an offering for supporting both personal and collective healing.”
Mayyim Hayyim’s mikveh guides – people who support individuals undertaking the ritual from the moment they enter – are key to making the process run as smoothly as possible.
“Our most recent training had a specific focus on cultivating as many guides as possible who were Jews of colour and who identified outside of the Ashkenazi [Jews of Eastern-European heritage] world,” says Rabbi Amalia Marks, Director of Programmes and Partnerships at Mayyim Hayyim.
The aim is to provide all visitors with the option to choose a guide with whom they identify most closely, whether that’s a fellow Jew of colour, a trans or nonbinary person, or a disabled person, in the hopes that this can help instil a sense of safety and tranquillity for participants.
Within the Trans Torah is a specific mikveh blessing for those transitioning, co-written by Max Strassfeld, Professor of Trans and Religious Studies at the University of Arizona. “It’s important to notice the ways that Judaism has been incredibly flexible and innovative in the face of many challenges throughout its history, the capacity to transform itself and survive,” they say.
This idea is central to the move towards extending and adjusting the mikveh ritual. For those who have ever felt excluded from Jewish cultural or religious practice, there is hope to be found in Judaism itself: adapting practices and rituals to meet the needs and desires of the community as the world changes and progresses is inherently Jewish. And that’s something to be endorsed and celebrated by the community at large.