Inside the Womb of Living Water
Monkey Pox is quickly joining a list of transmittable yet treatable diseaes, linked to sexual beahviour. For the ancients, a thin and often invisible line divided hygiene and holiness, medicine and morality. Washing in water as a way to cleanse - not just body, but more so the soul - was and is shared by many cultures. Jews developed the Mikveh - the ritual act of immersion in water which is required for some of life’s thresholds, most famously, for women, following monthly menstruation, in order to re-engage in sexual relations. Immersion has come a long way since its early days, first mentioned in today’s chapter as a step among several towards the cleansing of people’s contact with bodily liquids of all sorts. Chapter 15 covers all sorts of leaks and drips from the private parts, blood and semen, discharge and puss, all requiring some time, attention - and water, in order to reset:
“When a woman and a man have intercourse which includes insemination, they are to wash in water, and will remain ritually unclean until sunset.” (Va 15:18)
Everett Fox writes in his commentary: “These conditions and the role of the priest in making rulings on them have less to do with hygiene and medicine than they do with maintaining the borders between life and death, and symbolically affirming life...As a male hierarchy, the priests viewed women, with their closer connections to the life process (and maybe also to previous forms of paganism in the form of goddess worship), as potentially dangerous, or at least problematic, to their system of purity. The seeming “disorder” of women’s discharges (perhaps representing “nature”) threatened the imposition of order (“culture”) that is so central to priestly thinking.”
There’s much to say about the deep meaning as well as the gendered manipulation of these water rituals since then till now. There are also wonderful new experiments in reinventing the Mikvah for all people and all life stages beyond the binary paradigms of yore. The ritual bath reimagined is the womb of rebirth, a cleansing ceremony that appeals to so many aspects of our complex lives.
One of the interesting riddles is the evolution of these water rituals from washing to immersion - hands or part of the body to fully embodied experience. This must have happened long ago as already in the Midrash the link is made between the act of bathing and the need to wait until the sun has set for the purification to complete.
“Perhaps one should wash one limb at a time? Scripture teaches: “until sunset” - Just as the setting of the sun occurs all at once, so too is immersion in water—all at once.”
We’ve all washed our hands a lot during COVID. How else can we keep honoring our holy bodies and find old-new ways to immerse in whatever waters help us live more healthy, held, helpful and honored lives? What/where is your favorite immersion ritual? I’m off to the beach..
Image: @RuthWeisberg, Waterbourne 1973
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