My teacher, of blessed memory, Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski, was fond of saying that “one generation’s creativity is the next generation’s tradition.” Of course, we always have to wait until that next generation to determine whether or not the creativity made it through. Perhaps that is what is most intriguing about the various new ritual activities at Mayyim Hayyim (Living Water), the community mikvah in Boston which is serving as a paradigm for about 20 other new community mikvaot (pl. mikvah). Among them is the notion that boys and girls just prior to their bar/bat mitzvah should undergo immersion. This growing trend, which was written about recently by Erica Brown in the (New York) Jewish Week, is particularly important as we search for ways to move children into Jewish adulthood when it is clear that adulthood in the secular community is a few years away. Using the mikvah in this context, some believe, can help strengthen the Jewish identity of these youth.
There are those who will debate the precedent of such a use for mikvah—and I am not one of them. I am very supportive of the mikvah and the reclaiming of ritual for various purposes, even if there isn’t clear precedent. But, as noted in the article, there are those who feel uneasy having a pre-adolescent girl or boy dipped in a mikvah, since the traditional use of a mikvah is “to sanctify the sex of a married couple.” But others, like Rabbi Susan Grossman, believe that:
“If it is being used in a pietistic way to raise spiritual appreciation for the event and pray for God’s blessings, then there is ample precedent for such mikveh use for both men and women.”
The pre-bar/bat mitzvah mikvah use also addresses what I like to call the “social visibility” factor in Jewish life today, particularly poignant for interfaith families. And what I applaud is the sensitivity of Mayyim Hayyim of the same notion. Conservative rabbis are using the mikvah prior to bar/bat mitzvah for so-called partrilineal children (those with a Jewish father and a mother from another faith tradition) for the purpose of conversion, or what Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet in Chicago calls a “completion ceremony”. However, our friends at Mayyim Hayyim understand that by encouraging it for all children, the social visibility factor for children of intermarriage (regardless of the purpose of the immersion) is removed. And in my book, that is a step forward in making the Jewish community more inclusive. Thank you, Mayyim Hayyim.