Transforming rituals: Mikveh and Infertility

I think it would be fairly safe to say that when I chose to write a Rabbinic Thesis on menstrual purity laws (niddah) and the ritual bath (mikveh) many people were slightly bemused. 'How will that be useful as a Reform Rabbi?' 'Isn't it just all about misogyny?'. Well, I wasn't sure how much use it would be, but I've always pursued studies that I was passionate about because I know I do better when studying something that excites me, and as it turns out, it has been greatly useful and has helped congregants and friends engage with a deeper level of meaning when it comes to immersion, for whatever purpose.
As for misogyny, yes, there is inevitably misogyny embedded in the history and texts around these customs, but that doesn't mean we can't find those elements that are meaningful and useful, and having acknowledged the misogyny, liberate ourselves to rediscover deeper, even new meanings for rituals such as mikveh.
One of the reasons I was so keen to engage with these subjects, and in particular to tie them in with the laws of niddah, was driven by my own experience of the female cycles, and a need to find deeper meaning and purpose in them. I've always enjoyed and appreciated ritual, and so these rituals became an important way for me to find a spiritual space, and a place in which I could deal with issues of infertility I have struggled with since being diagnosed with PCOS in 2003.
Over time, and with encouragement from a wonderful Rabbi with whom I sought spiritual direction, I developed a liturgy for myself (having created various mikveh liturgies for others for all sorts of reasons). This was published a couple of years ago within "Really Useful Prayers" edited by Jonathan Romain. This month, it was also listed at Ritual Well
As part of my thesis writing, I found a rather strange article in which an American Cantor, also struggling with infertility, said she was immersing once a month in the hope that the 'magical waters' would help her. I certainly wouldn't suggest that the mikveh waters are magic, or that using prayers and meditations such as mine will help you get pregnant. But that wasn't my purpose. The mikveh is a very private, feminine space, where every month, after experiencing the loss and failure of still not being pregnant, one can take time to reflect, process, mourn, even cry, before allowing oneself to get on with the next month. This may not have been it's original purpose ritually, but it fitted perfectly for what I needed.
I will be reflecting more on these themes in coming posts, as my journey with infertility has taught me a huge amount. However for the moment, and to some extent beyond our own hoping, I am now 3 and a half months pregnant, and beginning to think about how the mikveh might be used to celebrate this new transformation, this new life, and a hope we have barely dared to have. I have learnt a huge amount from this journey, one of which is that there are a huge number of women, men and couples out there dealing with these issues, and until one person is open about it, many are too afraid to openly admit to it. Likewise the mikveh has always been a ritual women snuck out to at night, hoping not to be noticed so as to keep their home lives private. Perhaps both are things we need to be more open about, to allow people to engage with them, struggle with them, and process them.


  1. Well said indeed. Looking forward to reading more on the issue. Be shaa tovah! Tere

  2. B'shaah tovah! Thank you for sharing this important piece. At Mayyim Hayyim we sometimes struggle with the whole "magic" thing. You've done a really nice job of explaining the essence of healing and hope.

  3. Debbie, you probably have many resources already. Nevertheless I am sending one from a blog I happen to be following.
    Shabbat shalom!



  5. Mazal Tov to you and Gary, and thanks for sharing this so openly. It gives hope to the rest of us PCOS sufferers, still waiting for that BFP to come out way. xx

  6. Congratulations. I do hope all will go well. An interesting insight into how ancient,even out-dated, rituals can be relevant to modern life.

  7. this is amazing, I studied some of these rituals in Uni, and it's through pieces such as this Debbie, that people are enlightened and enriched. And to share your joyous news, what a sermon :) so scrap the first three words of this reply and replace with the following: "you are amazing" :) Mazel Tov to you and Gary xx


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