“I immerse as an act of transition; from present to future, from student to learner and teacher, from Jewish childhood towards a new state of responsibility and privilege in the Jewish community,” Mayyim Hayyim’s mikveh (ritual bath) ceremony “Becoming a Bat Mitzvah” begins, setting the intention to leave childhood and enter the loftier status of Jewish adulthood. The English-language ceremony, produced by and for participants in liberal leaning sectors of American Judaism, offers a window into an imagination of Jewish adulthood that includes the privileges and responsibilities of being “a counted member of my Jewish community”; investment in living a life of Torah learning; and commitment to social justice using the idiom of Tikkun Olam (lit. repair of the world). In short, the Bat Mitzvah Immersion is a fully embodied, private ritual to precede the public acceptance of rights and responsibilities of what I’ll call “full Jewish citizenship.”
The bat mitzvah ceremony for girls is a relatively recent innovation on the bar mitzvah, a ritual marking a boy’s assumption of adult responsibilities. (A more recent innovation is to use the plural bnei mitzvah akin to they pronouns or a gender-neutral b mitzvah). The bar mitzvah, as a public celebration of “a boy’s entrance to the religious majority at age thirteen,” has a history that goes back over four hundred years. It was only in the early twentieth century that the bat mitzvah became a communal celebration, and later still (the dates differ depending on denomination, but are at earliest in the second half of the twentieth century) when girls were allowed to be called up to the Torah (Hyman and Balin).
Before the development of early modern and modern celebrations resembling those commonly practiced today, coming of age customs were decidedly less romantic. A child assumed responsibility for his or her own commitment to—and consequences for transgressing—Jewish law, at age thirteen for boys and twelve for girls. If anyone was celebrating, it was the father, who would mark his freedom from liability for the sins of his child with a prayer praising God (Hilton, xii). His jubilation is, of course, my own projection, since childhood was different than it is today: children were “economically useful” family members, who were headed into marriages not delighting in a game of Coke and Pepsi.
It is essential to note that in the case of the Bat Mitzvah, the mikveh is not playing its traditional role as a religious technology for enacting a transformation of status, whether from impurity to purity or conversion to Judaism. The new status of Jewish adult is not acquired by descending into the mikveh. The change of status does not even require ascension (an aliya is literally going up) to the Torah, which is the normative symbolic act that marks the conferral of the rights and responsibilities of Jewish adulthood in most contemporary bnei mitzvah celebrations: before the sacred scroll, above the congregation, a Jewish adult recites a Hebrew blessing praising the Sovereign God for the Torah and (often) chants scripture. Even if the neophyte adult enacting the ritual knows the Hebrew’s translation, the theo-political idea of God’s sovereignty is almost certainly a great distance beyond reach. Responsibility, however, is assumed with age.
If, to be fully enfranchised as a religious adult is to be granted access in public to Torah and counted in a prayer quorum, why would contemporary American Jews repurpose a ceremony most closely associated with post-menstrual purity to celebrate this particular change of status, from child to adult? It is certainly a feminist statement to use a reclaimed ritual to mark a girl’s status as a full member of a Jewish community, given how recent Jewish women’s enfranchisement was in liberal circles, and given the continued contestations over whether halakha (Jewish law) permits women to take on the full halakhic status afforded to men. If centering the young female body is subversive, it is also risky given the extent to which women’s bodies have been, and continue to be, a liability to women’s full religious participation and authority.
The feminist-infused Modern Mikveh Movement, of which Mayyim Hayyim is on the bleeding edge, is invested in re-signifying the mikveh, and in turn, putting the mikveh to use to honor and value bodies and sexuality. While some feminists do celebrate the onset of menses at the mikveh, in what has been called a “Period Party,” the logic of the Bat Mitzvah Immersion is not biological; similar ceremonies exist for comparable coming of age ceremonies irrespective of biological sex. The ceremony simply choreographs a fully embodied immersion in which a soon-to-be-minted fullJewish citizen descends the mikveh’s steps and dunks into the water, accompanied by prayers and meditations that situate the performer in relation to God, Torah, and community. Nowhere in the ceremony’s English text is there mention of purity, nor sovereignty, nor the yoke of halakha.
The Modern Mikveh Movement, more broadly, seeks to make mikveh available to every Jewish body for any reason. Its reemergence, after nearly a century of wariness about a ritual marking Jewish bodily alterity, is part of a larger process by which late twentieth and twenty-first century Jews are re-infusing American Judaism with the embodied ritual elements that were stripped away during the nineteenth century when Judaism was refashioned in the mold of public American Protestantism. Liberal American Judaism, especially the Reform Movement, replaced halakhic practices with a rationalized, ethical and spiritual ethos, though over the course of the twentieth century, some Jewish leaders attempted to demonstrate that a halakhic model of Judaism was actually quite befitting an American religion of democracy.
It is not only Jewish practice that has been negotiated and renegotiated in America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: it was also the status of children. To quote Viviana Zelizer’s now classic study, children became “economically ‘useless’ and emotionally ‘priceless’ from the late 1800s to the 1930s.” These changes cannot be extricated from the emerging authority of modern science to produce definitive knowledge about the world. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Darwinian evolution had instigated not only scientific but also political upheaval. If during the eighteenth century, a sea change in Euro-American politics elevated the autonomous, rational, individual uniquely capable of linguistic expression, Darwinism “seemed to undermine our [human] exclusive hold on those properties that were essential to the new politics,” a politics to which we stubbornly cling (Guenther, 6). If humanity’s exceptionality could not be defined by language, we, humans, doggedly determined another metric by which we could assert our inherent dignity: recognition.
As Laura Yares shows in her fascinating new book Jewish Sunday Schools: Teaching Religion in Nineteenth-Century America, in particular in Chapter 6, “From Theology to Religion,”the education of Jewish children became a flashpoint in the nineteenth century because of the coalescing of scientific ideas about childhood with Jewish communal fears about assimilation. By the turn of the twentieth century, a new science of child psychology, led by G. Stanley Hall, sought to define the question: what is a child? The new answer was an innocent, emotional being, likened to primitive man. With Hall’s 1904 publication Adolescence, he introduced the concept into scientific and popular imagination as a period of a child’s evolution into an adult, drawing on Lamarckian evolutionary theories and repurposing racial scientific hierarchies into explanations for maturation over the human lifecycle. In parallel, the influence of William James’ psychologically inflected theories of religious experience rooted in emotion reoriented Jewish education from a pursuit of knowledge to an opportunity to forge affective ties to Judaism.
In the waning years of the twentieth century, a more secure sense of belonging in America combined with feminism, ethnic revivalism, and the growing influence of Orthodoxy have transformed today’s liberal Judaism into an admixture of halakhically anchored rites with emotionally resonant and spiritually meaningful practices that appeal to American religious subjects. It is also worth noting that mikveh has never been exclusively for women. It is also customary in some Hasidic communities for men to immerse in the mikveh regularly, especially on Shabbat and before prayer or Torah study. Such traditions are often cited in arguments for expanding mikveh use to enhance the spiritual life of liberal American Jews.
So I return, again, to the question: why the pre-b mitzvah mikveh? And to add a layer of precision, how is the “Bat Mitzvah Immersion” and its cognates a political theological ritual? I want to suggest that the turn to the mikveh recognizes, following Laura Levitt, an impossible assimilation into adulthood. No tween or early teen is suddenly transformed into an adult, and today, these new Jewish adults are, if not children, (very) young adults. Yet, drawing on Donovan Schaeffer’s challenge to the thinking/feeling binary in evolutionary science, I want to suggest that our political standards of citizenship, which are easily transposed onto religious ideals, are predicated on ideals that no one can attain, at least not all of the time.
The modern mikveh bat mitzvah, then, provides a watery container that melts away hard edges. The mikveh’s attention to cyclicality, both because of its associations with menstrual cycles but also the nature of the changing states of water in the world, dampens the temporal demands that we transition firmly, linearly, and by sheer will into fully responsible citizens. Furthermore, it diminishes the pretention that we are autonomous subjects whose rights and privileges should hinge on measures of cognition. What politics do we recall by metrics like our ability to communicate with the Hebrew God in God’s native tongue or ability to reason through a difficult halakhic question?
The political and theological problematics I have raised are put most starkly in relief by the one mother’s poignant account of her non-verbal son’s “Unconventional Bar Mitzvah.” But even in “conventional” cases, a bat mitzvah mikveh immersion is not only a touching ritual, but a political one because of the “formative work that ritual does” (Farneth, 142). Mikveh immersions before a bat mitzvah are neither transformative nor merely symbolic: they call attention to the bodily, emotional, and ethical processes necessary to forge more just and equitable understanding of full Jewish citizenship, and by extension, citizenship more broadly.
The ripples of political ritual continue well beyond the event of immersion. At a reception for ImmerseNYC, a New York-based mikveh project that is an organizational cousin of Mayyim Hayyim, I listened as Daphne and her mother Lisa reflected on their immersions before Daphne’s bat mitzvah to the assembled crowd. Lisa began by sharing how the mikveh filled a need she had had at other significant mothering milestones, like birth and weaning. “I yearned for a way to express Jewishly the boundless step of my love and gratitude. I have recited the Shehekheyanu [a prayer of gratitude said on special occasions], but prayer alone hadn’t given full expression to what I was feeling. For that I would need ritual,” she had come to realize. “It was Daphne who brought the beauty and the power of the mikveh into our lives,” Lisa explained, before Daphne picked up the thread, explaining that she had made the subway pilgrimage from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side mikveh on a fifth-grade religious school field trip, where an ImmerseNYC guide had introduced the Bat Mitzvah Immersion Ceremony.
Lisa contacted ImmerseNYC about preparing an immersion for Daphne, and the team recognized a need Lisa did not know she had had: to mark that she was “going to become mother to a teenage daughter.” The mikveh was gestating multiple becomings, reminding the audience to notice the ripples of connection and differentiation that happen throughout our lives. The preparations for mikveh, Lisa explained, are part of an effort “to get as close as possible to how we were when we came into this world. I was there at Daphne’s beginning 13 years before, and now was with her again as close as we could get to that beginning and also on the threshold of another,” Lisa reflected poignantly on riding the waves of becoming.
When it was Daphne’s turn, she manifested “waves of knowing” the mikveh afforded. When she had been in fifth grade, Daphne had been impressed by the glean of luxury, “like a spa at a very upscale hotel.” Now, with her bat mitzvah three months in the rearview mirror, Daphne recounted how she had repeated the subway pilgrimage with her mom, this time nervously. It was a trip to an edgier place. She was “self-conscious” about getting naked not only in front of her mom but a mikveh guide too. And mothers are also just so embarrassing! (My tween agrees). Her mother had been laying it on thick about how special it would be to be “sharing this experience together” but through Daphne’s teenage filter she heard: “‘Okay, mom, spirituality, yada, yada.’” When they arrived, and the guide offered the option that they might immerse together and “told [them] how special it was,” Daphne shed that new teenage casing and “knew right away that immersing with [her] mom in the room was what [she] wanted to do.” A bat mitzvah might be a moment to celebrate the emergence of a new normative status: adulthood, the emergence of a sovereign responsible religious subject. Yet, here was a poised mature young lady, leading her mother to the mikveh, and recognizing how much she still needed her close. We gestate each other, even daughters and mothers, around the spool of time, not the lineal thread.
“Daphne’s bat mitzvah was the greatest day of my life so far. I have no doubt that the mikveh played a significant role in that by giving us a private moment in the midst of such a joyful public celebration,” Lisa reflected. Daphne also took away from the mikveh wisdom for the future. To her little sister, as she approached her own bat mitzvah, she recommended going to the mikveh because it served as “a chance to appreciate being Jewish, which is hard when you’re surrounded by more dominant cultures”; and she recommended that she go with their mom, because it was an opportunity to connect freed from everyday barriers like the work and school hustle. Maybe the kids are alright, I thought.
As the mother-daughter duo stepped away from the podium, shuffling off to the side to hug and kiss the rest of their assembled family members, the master of ceremonies took the microphone and declared, in a gentle tone, “And that is what an immersion feels like.”