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By the Waters

Monday, 11 October 2010

My head is swirling. Three panels, two keynotes, and a story in song. An aliyah at Shacharit, making new friends, and reconnecting with a classmate. Had the opportunity to hear Rabbi Maya Leibovic, to learn from Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz, whose teshuvah on mikveh I have long admired, and Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who was every bit amazing as I’d imagined.

It has been, in a word, amazing.

But it has also contributed to a heaviness in my heart as I realize that there is no place for me. At least not yet. For although the Reform movement has embraced the use of the mikveh to mark transitional moments, our leadership is largely silent on the monthly use of the mikveh. Seeing a woman as niddah, and the subsequent immersion in the mikveh, was among the numerous “orientalisms” that were discarded by the early Reformers.

I am troubled, as I have noted in prior posts, about the rush toward innovation at the expense of tradition. Why can’t the laws concerning a woman, her menstrual cycle, and immersion in a ritual bath be a meaningful part of liberal Jewish life. At the very least, it ought to be a part of our conversation.

And so, it is by these living waters that I have wept. Wept that I seem to belong everywhere and yet nowhere. Wept because I yearn for a community who struggles with what it means to be an observant, liberal Jews.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, 11 October 2010 11:48 pm

    Amen. I struggle with the same thing. I do visit the mikvah monthly, and I’ve become used to being that lone (or nearly so) liberal lady-rabbi in town who uses th mikvah like all the orthodox ladies.

    Like so many things in Jewish life, the mikvah carries for me a mix of compelling associations that bring me back every time. There is a large measure of talisman-flavored comfort for the childbearing part of me that drips with superstition, and a portion of my soul that yearns for that connection with other Jewish women everyewhere. No matter how much I may hate the chlorine or late-night makeup-less drive,I think that part is what makes it worth it every time.

    Thanks for this post. Your work is inspirational.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 12 October 2010 12:57 pm

      Thanks, Leigh Ann.

      One thing that I found important these past few days is finding like-minded liberal women who see that this can be an important mitzvah. How much we can learn from one another in terms of being out-of-step with “normative” liberal Judaism…whether 7 days from onset is sufficient or longer…the realities of separation. Such meaningful and challenging conversations.

  2. Tuesday, 12 October 2010 1:49 am

    May I ask why you are in the Reform movement and not with the Conservatives? They are more observant and put more emphasis on rituals and their validity, especially some congregations. Maybe this requires a post of its own unless you have answered this already.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 12 October 2010 1:07 pm

      This is worthy of an entire post, I-D. The very short answer is that I am, in fact, a Reform Jew in the spirit of what Reform was meant to be but isn’t. Reform is not supposed to mean “do nothing, know nothing.” The Reform philosophy informs my theology, the way I understand God’s ongoing Revelation, etc.

      I think I am going to work on a post that talks through the reasons why I am Reform…and why the Reform Movement is moving to a place that I no longer recognize.

      FTR, the folks sitting in the pews at Conservative shuls aren’t all that much more observant in their personal practice than those in the Reform shuls.

      • Tuesday, 12 October 2010 1:24 pm

        They certainly are in France. And the clergy encourage them to be. here is an article you might like to read:

        http://www.jta.org/news/article/2010/09/12/2740874/frances-growing-masorti-movement-struggles-for-a-foothold

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Tuesday, 12 October 2010 1:41 pm

        Thanks for this very interesting perspective. European Jewry tends to be more stringent in its approach to ritual, etc. That is true of the Progressive (Reform) Movement abroad as well.

        Living in America, however, I can only speak to what I see here in this country. And here, my earlier observation is an accurate one here, though, it seems, contrary what is seen elsewhere.

  3. Tuesday, 12 October 2010 5:15 am

    Perhaps we need to be more vocal and proactive about teaching about mikveh – beyond the innovative or conversion immersions. As a mikveh guide, I know that there are liberal women who go monthly but because of the privacy nature of the ritual (and because we’ve tended to make the monthly use a “taboo”) we don’t hear about it.

    As a rabbi, I used my Yom Kippur sermon a few years ago to talk about mikveh and kashrut – yes, in a Reform congregation. I don’t know whether or not anyone adopted either practice as a result, but there is power in naming things normally left unsaid.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 12 October 2010 1:16 pm

      I agree completely that we need to talk about this beyond the one time immersions (conversion, prior to marriage) and other transitional immersions. I am looking forward to discussing this with our senior staff and finding appropriate moments to bring this into the conversation.

      And I agree also that as rabbis, we must talk about the things that are “normally left unsaid.” After all, how terrible would it be for folks to grow up and be able to say that they never heard their rabbi talk about mikveh (or tefillin or whatever).

  4. Former Reform Jew permalink
    Tuesday, 12 October 2010 10:34 am

    Sara Hurwitz is on my short list of people I’d like at my shabbat table. (Although it is becoming more evident that Frume Sarah deserves a spot on that list as well)

    I thought she had backed off from using the term Rabba, in favor of the less rabbi-sounding Maharat. In fact, her yeshiva seems to be training women to earn the title Maharat, and not Rabba. If I remember correctly, the Rabbinical Council of America was willing to admit her as Maharhat, but not as Rabba. It might seem like a silly semantic argument to a female Reform Rabbi and her blog readers – but for technical reasons in halacha, it does make a difference.

    I really hope that you find a way to encourage more Jewish women to participate in the “hechsher mitzvah” of going to the mikvah. I never heard a single word about niddah at all in my own extensive Reform education, and mikvah attendance was understood to be a one time event for converts.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 12 October 2010 1:31 pm

      Aw…thanks FRJ. That is quite a compliment.

      You should know me well enough by now to know that I rarely regard semantics as silly. I too thought that Maharat was the preferred title. However, she was listed, and referred to, as Rabba.

      I concur that mikveh is typically presented as a one-time occurrence in connection with conversion. I hope to teach about it as having a place in normative ritual practice among Jews of all stripes.

  5. Tuesday, 12 October 2010 10:50 am

    Very powerfully written. This is a struggle I share, as I seek to follow tradition while at the same time being part of a liberal congregation. It seems that there is a swelling tide of traditionalism within the Reform camp – though I don’t know how far or how fast that tide will go. Maybe as the older generation with its more classical reform expression gives way to a new generation of more traditional expressions, we will craft a Reform Judaism that is willing to converse and struggle with tradition, rather than simply jetison it.

    Or maybe we should just become Conservatives, like ilanadavita suggests.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 12 October 2010 1:36 pm

      Mikveh, however, presents a problem to the younger generation based on the perceived anti-feminist notions surrounding menstruation, etc.

      Niddah cannot be understood without a deliberate examination of the Biblical text and how it is later understood by the generations of Sages who strove to make our mitzvot livable. This must be our jumping off point. For without understanding the Scriptural basis, as well as historical development, of these practices, how can we begin to reframe them as being relevant in our own time?

      As for being Conservative, why that presents its own set of problems. Ask anyone in that Movement who is trying to live an observant life.

      • Wednesday, 13 October 2010 6:33 pm

        Ah yes. There is nothing new under the sun, and so we have our struggles to find meaning. And that’s true in all the movements, I think.

      • Frume Sarah permalink*
        Thursday, 14 October 2010 10:58 pm

        Yes, I think that it is true in all the movements. I just don’t think it’s true of all people…

  6. Tuesday, 12 October 2010 11:40 am

    I love you and I hear you. You are my role model in struggle. hugs.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 12 October 2010 1:43 pm

      Thanks, Laeli. Today’s theme was struggle. Unofficial theme, that is. It came up in many conversations. More to come.

      As the song goes, “when will I see you again?”

  7. Tuesday, 12 October 2010 7:29 pm

    sounds like an amazing opportunity to wrestle with all these issues. looking forward to hearing more from you on this subject….xo

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Thursday, 14 October 2010 10:17 am

      Thanks. Wondering where you are on the topic of monthly immersion…

  8. Thursday, 14 October 2010 6:17 am

    Loved your post. Reform Judaism is supposed to be about educated choice! We just have to make sure that we don’t leave the “educated” part out of that! I taught a class on Mikvah in reform Judaism last year at my synagogue. I believe in it, and I use it – not with perfect regularity, but often. I struggle with using the Orthodox Mikvah, at which I am slightly uncomfortable. The only liberal Mikvah near me requires an appointment and that makes me feel like I am being an imposition. We need more places like Mayyim Hayyim throughout the country. In the mean time, I will continue to preach the greatness of the Mikvah, continue to go, and especially continue to insist that Reform observance is not the same as non-observance!

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Thursday, 14 October 2010 10:47 am

      Reform observance is not the same as non-observance!

      Amen!! I find that I am constantly trying to get people to understand this important distinction.

      Our local Orthodox mikveh, which is beautiful and welcoming, requires an appointment as does Mayyim Hayyim, for that matter. When mikva’ot are staffed by volunteers, scheduling is necessary.

  9. Wednesday, 27 October 2010 8:55 pm

    Wonderful post.
    Just recently, here in Israel, a woman I met whose family doesn’t seem outwardly religious at all, tole me. “You can eat in my house. I separate milk and meat, and I also go to the mikvah.” It’s not the first time I discovered how women who seem so unlikely to keep the commandment, actually do consider it extremely important.

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