What is the most foundational part of a Jewish community?
For some, the obvious answer might be a synagogue or a Torah. But according to Jewish religious law, a Jewish community can be considered as such without a proper house of worship or a set of Torah scrolls.
Instead, what a community needs most is a mikvah: a ritual bath. In theory, they were once even allowed to sell their Torah scrolls if the profits were needed for the construction of a mikvah.
On July 28, Chabad of South Baltimore’s YJB division (Young and Jewish of Baltimore) held an event called “Relationships & Intimacy – Judaism’s Best Kept Secret: Mikvah” at Mikvah Mei Menachem. A discussion, mikvah tour and dinner, the event was co-sponsored by Mikvah USA and included a lecture by Miriam Lipskier, director of the Chabad at Emory University in Atlanta. Lipskier spoke about the intricacies of Jewish relationships and the mitzvah of mikvah.
Rochel Kaplan, the director of Mikvah Mei Menachem, led the tour. She has been running the mikvah for the past 18 years.
At Chabad-Lubavitch Baltimore’s mikvah, men and women cannot use the same mikvah, and they are only meant to be used as part of a custom for men or to denote a status change for women. The women’s mikvah was the main focus of the event, as using it is a mitzvah.
Mikvah Mei Menachem is also fed in part by rainwater, another requirement for building a mikvah. At least 120 gallons of the water in a mikvah is meant to flow naturally from a source such as a river, spring or rain, according to Rabbi Yaakov Kaplan of the Chabad of South Baltimore.
Typically, the mikvah is used to mark a status change in a person’s life such as conversion. For some, submerging in a mikvah is also an important part of marital relationships. When a woman is menstruating, she is meant to refrain from being intimate with her partner during her period until seven days after it ends, when she can bathe in the mikvah. This is part of Taharat HaMishpacha, the family purity laws.
“From a Torah perspective and a human perspective, the thing that’s unique about your relationship … is that there’s an intimate physical dimension to it,” Lipskier said in her lecture.
In addition to touring the mikvah and talking about how the concept came to be, attendees also discussed Jewish views on the concept of sexuality and romantic relationships and how they differ from other religions’ views on the subject.
While Christian religions place an emphasis on purity and innocence, Judaism explores the kabbalistic element of sexuality in addition to the physical element, Lipskier said. She explained how the phrase in the Torah about God creating the first human being is worded strangely, as it ends in “male and female, he created them,” meaning the first human being was androgynous, got split up and was later told to get back together. Kabbalistic teachings theorize that this is the story of the human soul.
“From the moment two individuals come into the world, they have a desire,” Lipskier said. “They have a yearning, they want to connect.”
Jewish teachings view romantic attraction as not just physical pleasure, but as coming from one’s soul. It is a spiritual experience, with the male and female halves of the soul being reunited.
“There’s nothing holier than that, because it’s from your soul,” Lipskier said. “Human sexuality, according to Judaism, is [one of] the holiest things you can experience.”
“I encourage others to unwrap this gift and learn more about it, and to learn more about what resonates with you,” said Rebbetzin Chana Kaplan, who helped moderate the discussion. “It’s an ongoing journey for us to bring mitzvah into our lives, so we’re really happy this happened and look forward to more conversations in the future that empower young Jewish professionals of Baltimore to build strong, beautiful, passionate relationships and homes.”
Kaplan advises that those interested in future events can visit YJB’s Instagram, @yjpbaltimore or email her at [email protected].
Lipskier ended her lecture by saying that a better world is built one happy, healthy and passionate couple at a time, and each one brings more love, connection and happiness to the world.
Those interested in finding mikvahs near them can visit mikvah.org, which contains a database of mikvah locations all over the world. As for those without mikvahs in their community, Lipskier’s suggestion was to “fundraise and make one. Make it happen.”