At the newly-revived religiously and socially progressive Kibbutz Hannaton in Lower Galilee, a tradition has evolved to hold a women's circle at our mikveh (ritual bath) for each woman a few weeks before she is due to give birth. Thankfully, we have located on our kibbutz a unique mikveh in the Israeli scene: Shmaya: A Spiritual and Educational Mikveh in Galilee, where anyone can come to immerse for whatever purpose -- with or without guidance, in private or with accompaniment.
That is how an old tradition of women immersing in the mikveh before giving birth was transformed at Hannaton into a ritual gathering that speaks to the modern, progressive women of our small kibbutz.
Our last gathering was for Viki, two weeks before she was due to give birth in January. As women arrived with food and cheer, they settled in to help create a plaster cast of Viki's pregnant belly (which she will paint and add to the growing display in the mikveh of plaster pregnant belly casts created by Hannaton women over the past year).
When the cast was complete and ready to set aside to dry, Viki showered and went into the mikveh room with a close friend to perform her pre-birth mikveh ritual. She was glowing as she came out of the mikveh room and we welcomed her with a song from the Aveenu Malcheinu prayer traditionally said on the High Holidays: "May this hour be an hour of mercy and a time of favor before You."
The first hint we get in the Bible of the mikveh ritual is in the creation story, where we are told that the world began as an abyss with the spirit of God hovering above the waters. In creation, God separated -- between dark and light, sky and earth, land and sea. A dualistic world was "born" out of water, just as every human being is born out of water into a world of dualism, of everything and its opposite. It is the human condition to strive to return to that place of completeness where we floated before we were born, to return to our mother's womb where we felt whole and connected to our most essential spiritual selves. In essence, to God, who is "One." God is not dual. God is that wholeness that we all search for in our "spiritual quest" on this earth.
Mikveh is a ritual of transition and rebirth. We enter the mikveh -- which is reminiscent of the womb -- curl into a fetal position, immerse ourselves completely in the "living waters," and come out renewed, refreshed, revitalized -- reborn.
In each of life's transition we are in essence reborn, which is why mikveh has developed in modern times into a transition ritual for all types of life transitions: conversion, bar and bat mitzvah, first menstruation, menopause, divorce, marriage, cancer treatments, transitioning out of bereavement, being drafted to the army, retirement, graduation, at the beginning of the New Year. But there is also an old tradition for women to immerse before giving birth. And it is interesting how it originated. After all, it is not as if traditionally women had no other opportunities to immerse. They would immerse every month after their periods. And although a pregnant woman would not have immersed for nine months, she knew she would be immersing again after the birth. So why this tradition?
First, mikveh immersion before major spiritual events -- like weddings, the High Holidays, scribing God's name in a Torah scroll -- mirrors the washing the Nation of Israel did before receiving the Ten Commandments and the washing the High Priests did before performing their Temple service. Giving birth is, like Revelation, receiving a holy gift. Giving birth is also a holy service; it is bringing one of God's souls into the world.
Second, mikveh immersion is emblematic of the fetus in its amniotic fluid and it is therefore an extremely appropriate ceremony for childbirth. Though it is not the mother who is being born, the birth of a new child is also a rebirth of the parents. With each life transition, we grow and are born again and again into the person we are meant to become. Transitions are like small and continuous births of our ever-evolving soul along the way of our life's journey.
But on a deeper level, perhaps women traditionally immersed before giving birth because they were preparing to reconnect to the wholeness every human loses when being born into the world. When a woman gives birth, she mirrors God. God created the world from water, and we birth souls into the world from the fluid of our wombs. And so, when a woman gives birth she is the most God-like a human being can ever hope to be.
Indeed, in terms of mirroring God the Creator, giving birth to a human soul is the closest we can get to Godliness. And so, it makes sense to me that women would turn to mikveh as a way to spiritually prepare to enter into that powerful yet humbling role.
After our study, we passed around a string on which we beaded earth-toned wooden beads for Viki. As each woman blessed Viki with her unique and personal wishes for her birth and her parenting journey, she added another bead to the string -- until together we created a lovely string of beads for Viki to hang near her bed to remind her of her many blessings and her supportive community of women -- especially during the birth, which she was planning to have at home. (She succeeded in having a safe home birth.)
Finally, to end the evening, we passed around a red string as we sang from Psalms: "Open for me the gates of righteousness. I will pass through them and thank God. This is the gateway to the Divine; the righteous will pass through it." As we passed the string around the circle of women, each woman cut herself a string to tie around her wrist to remind her to keep Viki in her thoughts until the birth. The idea being that as soon as she would hear news of the birth she would cut the string.
As we dispersed -- each woman to her own home, family, and life -- although we were channeling our love and support especially towards Viki, I know we all felt the embrace of this community of women. And two weeks later, Viki gave birth to her son, who was named Lavi at his brit milah ceremony eight days after that. I was with a friend from the kibbutz when we heard the wonderful news.
"We never stop being moved by this birth thing, do we?" my friend said as she cut the red string from around my wrist.
"I agree," I said. "But not just because of the baby who is born, but also because of the birth process itself."