Ozur Bass is one of a small but growing number of Jewish men who have adopted the practice of monthly mikvah immersions in tandem with their wives’ menstrual cycles.Keep in mind throughout this discussion that there is no obligatory reason nowadays for a man to go to the mikveh. Yes, many of us have the custom of going on the eve of Yom Kippur, some on Fridays and many Chasidim on a daily basis but while it may serve a spiritual need it effects no practical change in one's status. And it seems it's the spiritual needs, or possibly the faux spiritual needs, that this new trend seems to serve.
Mikvah use by men is not new. Men long have gone to the mikvah before their weddings, and some visit the mikvah as spiritual preparation before major holidays. Many Hasidim immerse before every Sabbath. Jewish law requires mikvah immersion – for men and women – as part of the conversion process.
In recent years, American Jews also have begun using mikvah immersions to mark milestone occasions like bar or bat mitzvahs, miscarriages or divorce. Some couples go to the mikvah when they’re trying to conceive.
But regular monthly mikvah use by men in correlation with their partners’ cycles, known in Hebrew as niddah, has been almost unheard of.
Naomi Malka, the mikvah director at Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation in Washington, said a core group of about 10 men have begun to do it off and on. Mayyim Hayyim, a pluralistic mikvah in the Boston area, has had 18 men use the facility for monthly immersions since it opened in 2004, according to the organization’s records.
“It’s becoming increasingly common,” said Carrie Bornstein, Mayyim Hayyim’s executive director. “When we talk about egalitarian practice in Judaism, our minds immediately go to women’s practice. I think it’s exciting and interesting to see men taking on practices that traditionally have been the domain of women.”
To be sure, monthly male mikvah use is still a fringe phenomenon. But its emergence is a sign of the degree to which modern Jews are reimagining traditional rituals, the lengths to which some couples are going to practice egalitarian values and the rising interest in mikvah use generally among American Jews.
When it comes to egalitarianism this is not the first attempt by the Reformatives to invent rituals. Years ago I recall reading a story about a new ceremony invented to be performed on the eighth day after the birth of a daughter. The folks involve felt it wasn't fair that boys got a whole party just for turning eight days old so they decided to produce something for their girls. Of course, they didn't lop off any parts from the girls so perhaps they weren't that dedicated to egalitarianism but still, the desire was there.
And what was the point? It seemed to be to prove that commercialism and superficiality as a means towards spirituality was what was driving them. After all, a bris milah is not about the party or the catering but about the surgical procedure and legal obligation it fulfills. By insisting that a similar party, sans the snip 'n' clip, had some meaning, the Reformatives seemed to be proving that their religious practice is simply about making things up as you go along to feel good. The way they present it also seems to betray a lack of acceptance of the legal requirement for going to the mikveh, making it into a family cultural practice they just happen to do.
Michael, a 29-year-old man in the Boston area who asked that his last name be withheld for privacy reasons, told JTA he began going to the mikvah every month at the request of his fiancee when they moved in together.One could easily level that criticism here and not just at the part about both members of the couple going to the mikveh together before marriage. A woman goes to the mikveh to remove the tumah of her niddah state. Yes there is a spiritual element but in the end, as long as she prepares and dunks correctly she has accomplished her objective. In contrast, the man accomplishes nothing. He has no additional state of tumah the mikveh is removing that will result in a change in his behaviour or who he can be intimate with. He comes out the same way as he went in. But the men doing this seem to be ignoring that in favour of their subjective feelings of spiritualism. Some have even gone beyond and invented a ritual to make themselves feel connected:
“She said that since we’re living together now, she wanted to go to the mikvah every month, as that was her mother’s practice and her family’s practice,” Michael said. “I knew the concept, but I honestly didn’t know much about it.”
Men who use the mikvah monthly have adapted the ritual in different ways. Ozur Bass, who has been doing it for 23 years, says he submerges four times, each time facing a different direction while meditating over one of the four Hebrew letters of God’s name. When he’s done, he sings the “Yedid Nefesh” hymn, traditionally sung before Friday evening prayers. He says a blessing beforehand but has no witnessMy first reaction was, of course, to giggle. I've seen it suggested elsewhere that when one is davening the Amidah one should imagine each of the four letters of the shem havayah during each of the four times we bow. I don't think spinning around in the mikveh to that same imagery is mentioned anywhere and certainly the blessing is a beracha l'vatalah. In short, it's the stereotypical position of the Reformatives dumping Shulchan Aruch and then slowly picking Jewish practices back up but with their secular liberal desires deciding which ones they'll go with. It's about as halachically meaningful as those new age "rabbis" who hold mountain top spiritual retreats on Rosh Hashanah. Feels great, means nothing.
But I think there's something different here we should look at. It's easy to mock (something I can say with definite authority) but if Avos tells us to judge each person favourably then it behooves us to look for the positive and I think there's a bit of positive in this.
First of all, the idea that men feel an obligation to go to the mikveh, sometimes simultaneously with their wives, shows a strong desire for fairness and respect. Yes, it's expressed in a dumb way but the desire is a good thing. These are men who probably treat their wives with tremendous respect and dignity.
Another thing to consider is the desire for a spiritual connection to God. Now, as is typical of the secular liberal approach to religion, it's all about bringing God down to us, not raising ourselves up to Him. As I've written before, modern religion is about the worshipper deciding that God has the same morals as Him and these Reformatives are no different. However, if you consider the widespread apathy in society towards religion in general or the way large numbers of Torah-observant Jews do their rituals by rote without any inner passion but simply because they have to, the fact that these men desire a connection, even if they're doing it backwards, is still something that can be worked with. Given a choice between apathy and interest, the latter is always preferable.
The only question is: how does one get someone like this to see that Torah observance isn't about customizing God to you but you customizing yourself to God without killing their spiritual need?