During this pandemic summer, when plastic kiddie pools are a backyard safe-haven from an emergent air-born foe, I am contemplating how contagion has shaped the life of another body of water: the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath. At first blush, the comparison is only superficial. The cheap plastic symbol of suburbia, where people already live a life of social distancing, has become a luxury item for which prices have been inflating with the rising heat index. The ritual bath, on the other hand, is essentially communal, representing shared investment in tradition and continuity. But as Americans (who can afford to) look for cold comfort through atomized approximations of the communal gatherings we have lost, those feelings, for me, melt into my longing for the warm hug of the mikveh’s waters. The mikveh is a pool of collective stories, a symbol of hope and renewal that has also caused much pain, for those excluded because of their sexuality or marital status, surveilled for compliance to standards of cleanliness, or facing a loss or fertility challenge. Even if mikveh is foreign to you, its behaviors are not. America operates in many of these same ways.
Before returning to the question of what the mikveh might help us understand about American religion, and America more broadly, let me back up and lay out some more concrete details. Today, according to Jewish law (halakhah), those commanded to immerse in the mikveh are women after the period of menstruation, niddah (literally separation) before resuming sexual contact, and converts as part of becoming Jewish. Immersion in mikveh is able to cause transformation from a state of tameh to tahor, most often translated as impure and pure.
Mikveh carries the stain of menstrual taboo. As a negative rite, to use Durkheimian terms, mikveh separates sacred from profane, which are fundamentally contagious ideas. But fears of blood have meant that mikveh’s contagious logics have been confused with matters of hygiene. In his encyclopedic Biblical and Talmudic Medicine, first published in German in 1911, for example, Julius Preuss went to great lengths to dispel the popular association. His text declared, emphatically, that the idea of impurity in biblical and rabbinic texts is not the same as contagion, but rather, has a spiritual sense, concerned with holiness not hygiene. Anyone with “the most superficial knowledge of bacteriology,” he stated, would understand the folly of conflating the two, since for example, the Torah laws for quarantining those with a plague of leprosy do not apply to non-Jews. In a comment revealing the pervasive association of irrationality and femininity, which remains septic in our social body today as it did a century ago, he concluded: “Our mothers and nurses may be forgiven for harboring such beliefs; they imagined to have made the sickroom germ-free by spraying phenol water.” By contrast, he argued, men of science should know better, and when they take up such ideas, make themselves laughable.
It was not just women’s public health instincts, but their leaky bodies, that posed a threat to the community if not properly managed; what that management symbolized and seemed to assure was the reproduction of the community in the face of an outbreak—of Jewish assimilation into Christian America. In an article “Mitzvah and Medicine,” historian Beth Wenger has shown how in the 1920s and 30s, American Jewish physicians embraced symbolic associations between mikveh and hygiene. Some Jewish leaders feared that if the commanded laws of family purity fell by the wayside the future of the Jewish community would be in peril. Wenger describes how apologists justified regimes of family purity as a means of protecting their reproductive bodies as well as their families from physical harm caused by menstrual blood’s toxicity. In the hands of these men, mikveh became a technology enacted on those at the margins of communal power: women were responsible for protecting the integrity of the Jewish family, and to do so, they needed to comply with laws regulating their sexuality.
Given the history of othering and control of women’s bodies, it may surprise you to learn that the mikveh has become a central site of Jewish feminist, and more recently, queer and trans activism. Across the United States, Canada, and Israel, participants in a grassroots Modern Mikveh Movement have been collectively reclaiming what many have considered to be among the most irredeemable misogynistic forms of bodily disciplining. I began my ethnographic research with questions about how a private ritual that is predicated on binary gender essentialism, in which a system of laws give men the power to govern sexuality within the confines of heterosexual marriage, could galvanize a broad-based movement. What kinds of politics could intimate immersions engender?
The mystical, legal, and material mikveh has become a site for Jews, particularly Jewish women, to reproduce, reinvent, recreate, reconnect in and through multiple bodies: the fleshy, watery, textual, and metaphysical. The mikveh’s semiotic-material system not only works because of its legal life but also draws on a biblical mythology, which has been amplified in mystical traditions. In Genesis 1:9, God gathered, yikveh, a verb with the same root as mikveh.The waters pooled to expose fertile earth, allowing life to blossom. From here, as well as from related images in Prophetic literature, grew the association between the mikveh and the womb of God, a link further amplified by the alignment of mikveh immersion with the start of the fertile period of a woman’s cycle. This idea has been particular potent for Jewish feminist activists, especially female-bodied ones, who use the mikveh-womb to shed pieces of themselves, of sacred texts, and layers of authority such that new Jewish lives can emerge. The multiplicity of bodies in and of the mikveh not only defy expectations of singularity, but also the valorization of disembodiment. Layers of textual scaffolding and practical repetition had cemented it, and it was its integrity that had made it so plastic for users seeking out new meanings. An institution for reproducing tradition had thus become a flexible boundary object that was at once held in common and divergent.
My ethnography of spiritual activist communities in Boston, New York, and Jerusalem, made clear that what had at first seemed counter-intuitive, namely the flexible reimaginings of a highly circumscribed regime of bodily discipline, was rather a poetic use of an ancient technologyfor exactly what it was designed to do: transform. The mikveh is a technology that takes in a body and transposes its position within the community: sexually unavailable to available, non-Jew to Jew. These are not changes to individuals as such, but changed relationships.
As a contact zone between bodies and fluids, the mikveh breeds contagious logics. But contagion, which literally means ‘to touch together,’ is, as a concept, fertile and capacious in its own right. Among bodies in contact or even proximity, circulation occurs, whether of microbes, ideas, attitudes or affects. Contagion easily slips across barriers between discursive and material, capturing something fundamental about sociality of biological beings and what Stacy Alaimo has called more-than-human nature. The mikveh, like our social worlds more broadly, cannot be purified of contagion.
A celebration of mikveh without purity, in turn, too easily slip into a story of progress, of feminist triumph, a celebration of women’s reproductive bodies symbolizing an autonomous individual who freely chooses to take back what belongs to her, justice prevailing. The pressure to complicate these narratives not only emerges from feminist and queer critiques of liberalism, essentialism, and reproductive futurism but also from stories of loss: stories of the torture of returning to the mikveh miscarriage after miscarriage; of ovarian cancer claiming the life of the feminist theologian who wrote of birth as liberation; of the painful relationships that trans and queer folx have with the female reproductive body and identities assigned at birth, the binary categories that govern the mikveh, and the communal valorization of heterosexual marriage; and of the gallons of water that go down the drain amidst climate catastrophe.
As Pricilla Wald explains in the introduction to her book Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative, epidemics make visible the inseparability of material and myth, casting light on “the necessity and danger of human contact” and the processes by which we imagine collective identities, nations, cities, and races. Such constructions, these pools of collective stories, exist only in relation to others: those “we” are in this with, and those from whom “we” need to protect “ourselves”: as if our borders and bodies were not porous, our waters not leaking, evaporating, or collecting rain.
When Durkheim imagined how the sacred, an external agent, could spread from person to person through physical contact, or even, symbolic associations, he was inspired by the budding science of bacteriology, that was being pioneered in his native France. The watery images of collective effervescence bubbling over, spreading from person to person, has continued to suffuse “our” collective identity, as scholars of religion, over a century later. Moving the microscope to our scholarly methodology, I wonder at what social models that were forged through the data of distant brown bodies through the language and authority of a newly dominant science fail to capture about our lives today?
While critics of a previous generation rejected the liquidy image of the melting pot, as a place where difference dissolves, I’m left wondering about the adequacy of our models of the social world and narratives of human relations. While I take contagion to be a necessary component of human life, neither the subjects it imagines nor the ends it brings about are necessarily fixed. We are the imaginers and the subjects.What does religious studies look like when we, like our objects of study, are vulnerable bodies and contingent beings? What do critical postures look like while naked, or prone? What do we hope our work will do, knowing ideas, values, and affects, too, are contagious?
The intensity of this pandemic moment is pressing me to add new texture to canonical texts and novel models. This pandemic has bred larger conversations about the nature of the “us,” as we have public reckonings with the racialized, gendered social inequalities that have made more visible, in the starkest life and death terms, that only some of us can afford to be safer at home, and that for only some of us home is safe(r). We live with the whiplash of news reports of a virus that indiscriminately kills yet disproportionately hits vulnerable populations in racialized patterns. We have had to face questions about whose lives are essential, and whose expendable. Narratives of the great equalizer, an indiscriminate killer, gave way over weeks and months to a realization that even if a virus does not discriminate, our society does. The pandemic is amplifying plagues that have long been rippling through our worlds, shaking the ever more tenuous social bonds on which democracy is predicated.
Before COVID-19 stopped time and sequestered us in our homes for what feels like a long niddah from everyday life of community, jobs, and school, I had begun to think about how epidemiological frames lose sight of the individual bodies as anything more than a carrier— a node in the network. In the mikveh, however, those who enter the water are never a stranger but always in some sense known, and held, in relationship to laws, substances, and spirits of a community it contains. What would it mean to rethink the social in these terms: as contagious but more than contagion, as subjects and objects touched together, but not sublimated?What if immersing in it can be understood as an act of filtering and translating, in which one both chooses and is chosen? Now my frames of reference have shifted: is the choice between sitting in separate plastic pools plotted along grids, or jumping into the middle of a cytokine storm, as communities taking to the streets to protest state brutality as an immune response to values it rejects?
In the midst of it, as we reckon with the failures of the American covenant, I am looking to the mikveh as a model of how to hold it all together: the tears and tear gas with the hope that being forced to stop, to examine the flesh, blood, myth, and concrete we are made of might renew our commitments to transforming this world into one we want to live in.