Ending with a Rainbow: Noah, Mikveh, Justice and Righteousness
The Noah story does not end with a rainbow.
I know, I know …. You’re in shock!
Story-book retellings would have you believe that the tale ends with the flood abating. The family and animals descend from the Ark. A rainbow shines across the sky. The rainbow a sign of an eternal covenant between God and the people of the earth, that never again such a devastating flood will be wrought.
The Noah story does not end with a rainbow. This is not some cute fairytale.
The biblical story continues with Noah planting a vineyard, getting drunk from the wine he produces causing him to fall asleep naked. One of his three sons, Ham, takes advantage of his father’s nakedness in ways unimaginable between father and a son, and then boasts of it to his brothers. Shem and Japeth, the other two sons, modestly cover their father up. Noah wakes to realize that he has been taken advantage of while naked, and utters a curse on his culprit youngest son. [i]
The Noah story does not end with a rainbow. This is a real story of dishonor, hurt, betrayal, and tragedy.
The events of this week have seen in the newspapers, another story that starts as an idyll and ends in dishonor, hurt, betrayal and tragedy.
Just as the waters of the flood were in Noah’s time to cleanse the earth of all wickedness among human kind, the Mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, has water that marks transitions. Water is cleansing in our Jewish lives. The Mikveh is a sacred and special place, a holy space, of power and transformative effect.
Traditionally, it has been used by men to mark the transition to holy days, or to prepare them for sacred work like writing God’s name in the Torah, or to purify them after they have exposed themselves to the profane. Traditionally for women it has been used to mark their transition from being single to being a bride, and to mark the end of their monthly menses before they resume marital relations. Traditionally it has been the transition point for those converting to Judaism marking the move from one status in life to the next. Traditionally it has been used by Jews to kasher their dishes, transitioning ordinary plates and pots, readying them for holy eating for those who follow Jewish dietary practice.
But as our Chai School class learned two weeks ago on their visit to the Mikveh at Adas Israel in Washington DC, modern uses of the Mikveh which began about 20 years ago, can mark all kinds of transitions. Bar/Bat Mitzvah, birthdays, beginning college, becoming an empty nester, the beginning of pregnancy, the ending of a job, retirement are all Mikveh moments. The ending of a marriage . coming out, can all be ceremonialized with immersion. Earning a driver’s license, healing from an operation, or surviving a trauma, marking the end of a mourning period, gender reassignment, celebrating an engagement can all be marked with sacred waters. Tevilah, immersion, is appropriate for anything that marks a significant change in one’s life.
The scandal, the dishonor, hurt, betrayal and tragedy that emerged just down the road in Washington DC, that made the national newspapers and has had reverberations throughout the Jewish world, involved a prominent Orthodox rabbi, Barry Freundel, who had installed hidden cameras to spy on women as they undressed and used the Mikveh associated with his synagogue Kesher Israel. The scandal, the dishonor, hurt, betrayal and tragedy has further deepened as we have learned of his abuse of power over potential converts, and the rumor that his Shul and Rabbinic Association knew that something was not quite kosher.
With this breach of trust and indiscretion, Freundel has taken a sacred and special place, a holy space for Jewish ritual, and created angst for those who have used it under his direction. The cleansing waters feel not so clean or safe or nurturing because the man in charge has uncovered the nakedness of the women who used his ritual bath, by peeping on them during their sacred preparations for immersion.
Ten years ago with the blossoming of the new Mikveh movement, Anita Diamant, author of “The Red Tent” and so many other books, used the proceeds of her novel to build a Mikveh called Mayyim Chayim, meaning “Living Waters” in Boston. The aim of Mayyim Chayim was to create a beautiful, opening and welcoming space, a space to reinvigorate and re-imagine Mikveh practice, that would be welcoming of anyone Jewish, or of folk converting to Judaism. A Mikveh that would be owned by the community and not dominated by any one group. Their goal, as they state on their website with a quotation from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook is to be a place where “The old becomes new, and the new becomes holy.” [ii]
The Mikveh we use in Washington DC at Adas Israel, follows the same principals upheld by Mayyim Chayim – commitment to traditional Jewish legal values, modesty, love of the Jewish people, belief that we are one Jewish community, education, beautifying the mitzvah of immersion, and openness and inclusivity.[iii]
In all immersions except for a conversion one can choose to do so alone or with a Mikveh Guide. With conversion, which requires a witness, you have an option of who your Jewish witness will be as long as they are of the same gender. Integrity and emotional support and discretion are paramount.
I hope one day, if you have not already, you will participate in one of the programs there, to see for yourself how meaningful and spiritual Mikveh can be, or choose an appropriate transition time in your life to experience immersion .
My colleague, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein wrote an article in 1986 that was published in Lilith Magazine, a Jewish Feminist publication, entitled “Take Back the Waters,” and this week in response to the dishonor, hurt, betrayal, and tragedy of the actions of Rabbi Freundel addressed the topic again in a Times of Israel blog post. She makes a plea to our Orthodox sisters:
“Let some good come out of this. Let Orthodox women take back the waters once and for all, by asking the hard questions about patriarchy and its results in their community. By asking how the idea of mikvah can be cleansed not only from this horrible rape with the eyes, but from its associations with women as clean, unclean, ready, not ready, covered or not covered. Let women-owned, women-controlled mikvaot as we have in the liberal community start to flourish in the Orthodox world, and let new definitions, new vocabulary and new research into human sexuality and its limitations pour out like water. And please, Orthodox sisters: listen to non-Orthodox women who found the mikvah spiritually uplifting when detached from sexuality. The idea just might make us all feel clean again.” [iv]
With admiration for her feminist viewpoint, let me add to my colleague’s wise words. This is not just a tragedy that affects only women. Rabbi Freundel has tarnished the reputation of Mikveh practice holy to both men and women. We all need to “take back” this ritual and imbue it with integrity. But there is more we must understand: Rabbi Freundel has brought a shande to the title of rabbi, teacher, judge through his illicit behavior. He has engendered distrust in Jewish establishment, for as the establishment, he took advantage of those who were at his whim, and advantage of those unawares. We also need to take back what it means to be a rabbi and what it means to be a Jewish institution. Like Shem and Japeth, the sons of Noah, we want to cover over the nakedness of this scandal. Like Noah, we awake knowing that cover up will not remedy the damage done.
The Noah story does not end with a rainbow.
Our story-books and memories re-write the ending of the Noah tale even though the scandal of its ending is forever embedded in the Biblical text. The tragedy does not go away. But how the story ends is reframed in perpetuity – a pledge not to flood the earth again. The reframing offers a promise that things will be better and tragedy, flood or family incest, will not be repeated.
Communities concerned with the integrity of our leaders, communities that want our Jewish establishments to be exemplars of our values, need to re-write this week’s news narrative not to write out our shame, but to demand that we return to the core of Jewish ideals we hold high and believe in. The actions of our leadership and institutions should aspire to be, as best as they can be, a light to the nations.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this week’s shameful exposures, it is that we as a people need to reclaim the sacred, the special and the holy. Justice and righteousness must prevail.
We recall the rainbow of Noah – the rewritten ending of a tragic story.
We pray to have the fortitude and the wisdom, to re-frame this current story of shame, to glean its lessons, and to create rainbows filled with colors of new and meaningful Jewish practice. We ask our leadership and our institutions to join us in this endeavor.
As the prophet Amos preached: “Let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a humble stream.”[v]
[i] Genesis 9
[v] Amos 5:24