Huffington Post has a provocative piece this week by Jessica Langer-Sousa, a self-described “observant” Jewish woman who wanted to go to the mikveh before her wedding to a “devout” Catholic. (The quotation marks aren’t intended to be snide, but just to note that since “observant” and “devout” are both somewhat subject-to-interpretation adjectives that she doesn’t define, I am not sure what they mean in this context.)
After being rebuffed by the mikveh lady at one Los Angeles spot, Langer-Sousa consulted with “Rabbi Lori,” the rabbi officiating at her nuptials, and opted instead to dunk in the Pacific. The ceremony turned out to be even more meaningful and spiritual than she’d anticipated.
You might think my knee-jerk “In The Mix” reaction would be to indignantly side with Langer-Sousa as she rails against the (presumably Orthodox) mikveh lady, who told her she wouldn’t be permitted in the ritual bath because her marriage would not be recognized in the eyes of God. But, while the mikveh at the beach sounds great, I actually found the piece troubling.
I’m ambivalent about posting this, especially right before Yom Kippur, because I don’t want to seem like I’m launching a personal attack on Langer-Sousa, who I don’t even know and who is probably a lovely woman. And who I wish all the best in her new marriage. But I wish she had made different choices with the essay itself, which felt excessively angry, in an almost adolescent way, even identifying the mikveh lady by name and implying she deserves to be called a derogatory word. Was this necessary?
Also, it felt a bit disingenous. Surely as a Conservative-raised Jew who now identifies as observant (not clear what she means by this) Langer-Sousa knew, before dialing the local mikvehs, that her impending intermarriage might be a stumbling block at an Orthodox, possibly even a Conservative, institution. Since she writes that she had been “lucky enough to find a rabbi to marry us,” she obviously knew that traditional sectors of the Jewish community remain opposed to intermarriage. So why set herself up for such a rejection, why not first approach her liberal rabbi or even inquire about liberal or pluralistic mikvehs, like Mayyim Hayyim? (It’s in suburban Boston, but its website has a directory of mikvehs around the country.)
What could have been a positive piece about finding a meaningful ritual to prepare for her wedding, instead got bogged down in feuding with the mikveh lady. Who no doubt behaved inappropriately and rudely: she could easily (and with no compromise to her own morals) have politely explained her concerns, then referred Langer-Sousa elsewhere.
But respect also has to be a two-way street. It’s not fair to expect everyone to agree with you, particularly when you are on their turf and your behavior violates something they hold sacred. It would be wrong for me to walk into a Boro Park shtiebel and demand an aliyah, just as it would be offensive for an Orthodox Jew to come to my Reform temple and insist that we put up a mechitza dividing the men from the women.
Jewish life in 21st-century America is incredibly diverse, so there’s no need to expect everyone in the Tribe to accept us or agree with us (they certainly don't all agree with me!): better to find the Jewish community/institution that resonate with you and where you do feel welcome than to grouse about those whose practices and beliefs are less compatible with your own.
Representatives of Jewish institutions do need to be welcoming and respectful. But I think it’s also important for individual Jews to give others the benefit of the doubt and not overreact to a single negative encounter.
Best wishes to all for a meaningful (and not too painful) Yom Kippur, however you choose to observe it. Gmar chatima tova!