Living History

I am still in shock over these experience, but knew that I needed to find a moment to actually write about it, so I am going to attempt to encapsulate two of the most amazing experiences of my life in words.

1) Maccabean Mikvah!

The 8th day of Chanukah, the women of Tochnit Alisa (the English language college and beyond program at Nishmat) had a lovely tiyul. One of our instructors live in Modi’in, just down the road from a relatively recently discovered archaeological site – a Hashmonean era site for Jewish ritual life. For those of you who might not be making the connection, the Maccabean revolt was in the Hashmonean era, so visiting the site on the last day of Chanukah was a pretty amazing way of connecting to history, both religiously and physically.

Post by Melissa, who appears here in the mikvah!

Post by Melissa, who appears here in the mikvah!

As we approached the site, it became clear that this was a unique find. The group gravitated towards the large space that was once the Beit Knesset (area where they prayed), however I was distracted by a series of steps leading into a hole in the ground. Could it be? Was I really seeing an ancient mikvah? Our guide began to speak about the space and referenced the mikvah and as quickly as I could, I scurried away from the group and back over towards the mikvah to investigate. I walked down the steps and just stood there – soaking up the moment. Here I was, standing the space where women (and men) had immersed thousands of years ago, in an era where ritual impurity had a meaning beyond what we can imagine.

I have a personal tradition to always think about my ancestors upholding the laws of taharat hamishpacha and immersing in the mikvah around the time of my own immersion. I always take some time in the waters to reflect upon their living nature and that of the history which they inherently tie me to. Now, that will take on a whole new meaning. I can connect to this phyiscal space as well and the emotions of really feeling that connection.

2) Holy of Holies!

Last week, Tochnit Alisa again had an outing. This time, we went to the Generations Center and on a Kotel Tunnel tour. (It was a nice touch that our guide for the latter was my Nach teacher!) One of the first things we saw on the tour was another ancient mikvah! Though this one was through a piece of glass on the floor because it was so very deep compared to where the “floor” of the tunnels is, it was still an amazing thing to see.

Women pray continuously near the Kodesh Kodeshim

Women pray continuously near the Kodesh Kodeshim

As we walked along and stopped to learn about the history I kept noticing religious women bustling past. At one point, we looked at the various archways and discovered that just ahead of us was an archway, directly underneath Wilson’s Arch – which is the closest place that men can pray to the Kodesh Kodeshim, the holy of holies from the time of the Beit HaMikdash, the ancient temple in Jerusalem. It turns out, there is a place directly under that in the tunnels where women can also pray. However, unlike the men’s area – there are always women there and anyone who knows how to get there can go at almost any time they want. We stopped in this place and our guide/my teacher allowed us some time to daven (pray) there. I stood in place and sung my favorite meditative line to myself and was almost in tears. I felt so connected to the history of the Jewish people and the plight of the temple eras and its destruction.

While I am the first to say that living in Israel is not an idyllic thing, these moments of being a part of the living history of the Jewish people is what makes the experience so important and profound. I am not going to start saying everyone needs to move here or make aliyah, but I do think it is important to take some time to get to experience the places which connect us all on a deeper level than we can cognitively undertand or expect.

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Tazria-Metzorah: The D’var I wanted to give

This past Shabbat we read the double portion of Tazria-Metzorah, and while I was asked to give a d’var torah for a young adult Shabbat dinner, it was not the crowd to say what I really wanted to about the weekly portion. Instead I spoke about Yom Ha’zikaron and Y om Ha’atzmaut and featured some of Benji Lovitt‘s 64 Things I Love About Israel. While it was a good fit for the audience, it wasn’t what I really wanted to say and it ate at me throughout Shabbat. So I now present to you, the (slightly abbreviated) d’var I wanted to give.

This week we read the double parsha, Tazria-Metzorah.  Both of these portions address an always favorite subject: ritual impurities.

While it addresses tzarat, a skin disease which is generally translated as leprosy but known by our sages to be something unique, at length – it also addresses a few other types of ritual impurities including other skin diseases, a plague in one’s home, seminal emissions, menstrual blood and other general eruptions and discharges.

These are all descibed by the same hebrew word: tameh. This word gets translated as unclean.

But really, what does unclean mean? Does it mean you are physically dirty? Not so much. It refers to a ritual and spiritual impurity. That is why all the “treatments” are ritual, based around offerings, prayer, and other ritualistic actions – not to go take a shower.

The translation as “unclean” needs some rebranding because its connotation does not work in contemporary society.

My personal mission, is to help illustrate this point around the issue of women’s menstrual blood and the subsequent “laws of family purity” and mikvah.  If we are able to understand that following these laws does not mean that we believe ourselves to be physically unclean, we empower ourselves to make mikvah a spiritual experience of reconnecting to our body and its life giving abilities.

My First Kallah!

Post (and photo) by Melissa

This weekend, I had the distinctive honor of seeing the first kallah (bride) I taught and mentored marry her best friend.

Serving as her kallah teacher sort of fell into being, and was a natural interaction for us both.

She had attended the wedding of her now brother and sister-in-law about six months before her wedding, and after seeing the joy and value add that kallah classes had in her SIL’s life, decided it was something she wanted for herself as well.  So she asked me how she could find someone to learn with, who wouldn’t pressure her into being someone she isn’t.  We had a moment and decided it would be a great fit for me to serve as her teacher.  I know and love her, and am of the “whatever you do that is more than you were doing is fabulous” mentality.

We spent many afternoons eating frozen yogurt, wandering around bookstores, and shopping for wedding weekend clothing – all while talking about mikvah, taharat hamishpaca, and Jewish weddings.  For the kallah it was critical that she understand the meaning behind all of the rituals she would be doing throughout the weekend, which gave me a great opportunity to have conversations about things I hadn’t really thought about in two years.

The kallah told me on Shabbat that she cried when she went to mikvah, and that made me cry.  To be a part of such an intimate moment in another woman’s life is powerful beyond words.  I know now that every time I immerse, she will be with me as I pray for my sisters worldwide.  I was her guide on a journey to a spiritual space that she never imagined knowing, and will be forever marked by.

Throughout the weekend, I was being introduced as S’s kallah teacher, and each time I got a big smile on my face.  As much as some family members were surprised or confused, I was honored.  It was a great joy to be able to share in very broad terms the content of our classes and to have others see the very special bond it created between us.  Though we had been friends going into this experience, we are bonded on a deeper level now for life.

We plan to continue learning and talking about how to make a Jewish home, and what rituals and observances are important.  She and her husband are not very religious people, but they have very strong Jewish identities and are wanting to explore how that pans out for their future together.  I look forward to this adventure, and am honored to have such a wonderful friend as my companion on it.

I hope to be able to write a more complete reflection soon, but just needed to share the excitement and energy while it was still fresh.

Reclaiming Mikvah

First some housecleaning since it has been so long with no posts from us!  Jessica and I spoke today, and we are doing away with the designated days for posting.  We will post when the mood strikes us as jobs and family life are currently taking more time than they were when we began this project.  We are committed to keeping this blog alive and active and welcome your input!

Ironically (or not, because Hashem has a way of guiding the world just-so), I had been thinking about writing a mikvah post as I have had some interesting conversations lately, and today Chaviva (aka, Kevitching Editor) posted about the lost spirituality of mikvah in her life.  As I began to write her a comment, I realized what I had to say was better suited to its own post here. So thank you Chaviva for getting me going enough to write what has been on my mind for a few weeks now.

Post by Melissa

Mikvah is a beautiful ritual with immense possibilities for spiritual enrichment; a ritual which can be as powerful or monotonous as you choose to make it.  Women singularly hold the power over this experience and what we share with one another can only help empower us to make it our own special moment.  I believe that embracing mikvah as not only something we must do, but something we choose to do, is one of the most feminist things we have the opportunity to do as Jewish women.

As someone with a long history of body image issues, having someone see me naked is no easy thing.  I could be stalled there from the start, however I make the choice to mentally prepare myself for the mikvah attendant to see me and am always relieved when it is a nice woman who doesn’t make a big deal of checking and has trust in my ability to follow the checklist and have appropriate preparation.  Regardless, I find myself having to push aside my fears and issues and simply trust in the tznuit-ness of my mikvah attendant.  I have to believe with all my being that she will not watch me as my naked back is turned to her. Once I slip out of my robe and begin to walk into the water, all else must be forgotten.

I focus on every step I take going into the water.  They are each a step away from the rigors of daily life.  A step into the calming natural waters of life. Being completely present as I descend into this sacred space is a blessing all its own.

Once fully into the mikvah pool, I get myself situated into the middle, take a deep breath and allow myself to be absorbed by the water, exhaling as I go in.  Exhaling all the negativity and stress. Holding in the beauty of the moment.  Taking a moment to right myself before repeating not only the physical dip into the water, but the spiritual one as well.

After I have completed my immersions in a kosher manner, which often takes me many more than the five I am aiming for, I take a moment to just be in that space.  I allow myself to reflect on the past month and the coming month; on the relationships which have grown or wavered; on those people in my life who need the healing embrace of these living waters.  I allow myself a  personal prayer to connect to these people and ask God for the strength to be what is needed in the coming month.

Before I exit the waters, I take the time to embrace my innermost spiritual self, really pushing my own comfort levels.  I force myself to think of the women all over the world who are also in this space at this time, and for the times before.  Connecting not only to my physical ancestors, but to all those who are my soul-sisters in this mitzvah. Sending them wishes for the healing and nurturing waters to provide for them in the month to come.

Ultimately, I find that embracing the deeply spiritual side of this ritual in a world where so many rituals feel monotonous is empowering.  It allows my entire sense of who I am as a modern religious woman to be revived and renewed on a monthly basis.  I know that I will miss it when I am blessed with pregnancy, and only hope I can find another source for a connection of this level.

You are likely asking a few key questions now, so lets just be blunt:  Yes, it is an annoyance to have to re- schedule other things to get to mikvah on the right night and time. Yes, I hate having to trek out in the cold, dark night to be scrutinized by a stranger.  Yes, I dislike having to schedule an appointment in a small window and feel rushed to get through.

Yes, I have to focus hard to get into the space to make it a truly spiritual encounter.

Yes, it is worth it to know that I am fulfilling such a wonderful mitzvah.

Yes, it is powerful to step into my Jewish femininity every month.

Mentees as Mentors

As I have mentioned here before, I am privileged to be a mentor to a few phenomenal young women. (Hi ladies! I love you!)  These young women are on a mission to grow both as modern women and religious jews – and I am lucky enough to help them discuss where these coincide.

Over the past few weeks I have had some particularly powerful conversations with some of them, really delving into the issues at hand and how they play out in their lives.  Each has a different story, but the underlying message is the same: how does a young, intelligent, modern woman find a meaningful place in religious Judaism. While I hope someday to have a great answer, in the interim it leads to a lot of conversations, research, and personal growth for all of us.  The big picture of this is not the point of this post though, that is for another day – what I want to share today is about the mentorship which I have gotten myself from these ladies.

Every time they approach me with a question or to share their newest experiences and challenges, it gives me an opportunity for growth as well.  I had the joy of walking to taslich with one of these fine young women, and getting to hear about her recent trip to Israel and the effects which it had on her. As someone who in the past year or so has become Shomer Shabbat and Shomer Kashrut, she is in a particularly interesting period of growth – really trying to find meaning as she embarks on her newly religious life.  Listening to her share her experiences was very inspiring for me, and reminded me of why I have become the person I have.  It is difficlt to be a Jewish feminist in a world where that seems to mean hair covering is bad but wearing a kippah is good and mikvah is bad but leyning is good.

My relationship with these women has given me such a wonderful opportunity to talk through these issues and find comraderie.  It has shown me the value of having a balanced person to talk to about the struggles of being a religious Jewish woman in modernity.  It has given me a place to find my passion in life.  I hope to one day create a venue through which I can continue this sort of mentorship with more young women trying to find their place and to keep learning and growing myself so I can truly grasp the full spectrum of the experience, and someday the laws.

Future of Women in Judaism

As mentioned on our Facebook Fan Page, I was recently asked to write a piece about the future of Judaism as it relates to women’s involvement.  I took it on in a true Melissa form and am both proud of the result and humbled at its inclusion.  To see my byline alongside Anita Diamant (Author and Found of Mayyim Hayyim) and Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (Founder of Uri L’Tzedek) is one of the greatest honors in my life.

Since I am spending today in the car with my parents, headed to celebrate my niece’s 6th birthday I leave you with a few links to peruse in my absence.

My piece for the Future of Judaism Series at Patheos: An Ever-Evolving Judaism: Women Meeting the Needs of Community

The entire “Future of Judaism” series at Patheos.

A brief blog post about the series which acknowledged my piece from MyJewishLearning.com

I’d love to hear your feedback!

I Love Water

post by Jessica

As mentioned a few weeks ago, we decided to take on mikvah as an observance.

I got a lot of nice feedback from that original post, and I am pleased to say that I enjoyed my first experience, and I wanted to take a moment to examine the experience as well.

First, I really enjoyed learning about mikvah. My teacher (incidentally, the same woman who taught the class on the Rabba controversy) was amazing. Not only was she totally understanding about where we were with our observance and why we wanted to start this now, but she helped us understand the variations in practice (especially important since we are Sephardic and the rules are slightly different).  She had a perspective that I really appreciated as well. This wasn’t about my being pure or impure or about sex or women being “bad.” Rather, it was about the ways in which Jewish people limit things that are good in moderation. For instance, eating is good and we encourage eating, but there are certain things we don’t eat and certain times we don’t eat as observant Jews. So too do we encourage people to have healthy sexual relationships, but in a certain context and at certain times. It was incredibly enlightening.

Despite all that, I still felt nervous as I began the unfamiliar procedure of counting days and all the things that go with mikvah observance. I worried if I was doing it correctly, and reviewed my notes several times to make sure. When I had determined when the fateful night would be, I placed my first call to the mikvah to make my appointment. The attendant who called me back was very nice (although, I admit it was awkward, since I was nervous) and we set up our time.

Our mikvah has the most amazing bathtub. There are not many apartments in the city that have bathtubs that you would want to spend any time in. So I spent a good forty five or fifty minutes enjoying the bathtub while slowly getting myself ready. It was powerful for me to spend that time in water, since I was that little kid who couldn’t get enough of the water. After hating the bathtub until I was about six months old, you could not drag me out of there or the swimming pool. So after just about drowning myself in the big tub, it was time for the mikvah.

I think the most difficult part for me was the fact that I couldn’t see anything with my glasses off. I think I underestimated how that would be, so it was tough. I like being able to see where I am, and especially when it’s important to have a good concept of where the sides of the mikvah are. I did not have a huge spiritual awakening, but it felt good and then it was time to get dressed. I had brought fresh clothes with me for going home, and I think the act of putting on new clothes made the spiritual difference manifest.

Bottom line: Good. Enjoyable. Something I look forward to continuing.