“U-sh’avtem mayim b’sasson mima’ayenei hayeshu’a”—“And you shall draw water in joy and gladness from the wells of salvation.” The words of the Prophet Isaiah provide the lyrics for Emanuel Amiran’s best-known song from the Yishuv, the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine—and for the Israeli folk dance that everyone knows. The popular tune, sung and danced by mgenerations of Jews around the world, reflects the centrality mof water—in Jewish history, in Jewish theology, in Zionism, in the Hebrew Bible, in religious ritual, in folk traditions, in geopolitics, in the very essence of Jewish life.
Journal Watcher’s meander down the river begins in ancient times—indeed with the Dead Sea Scrolls and “pre-Christian” Christian thought—in Pierpaolo Bertalotto’s (University of Bari) “Immersion and Expiation: Water and Spirit from Qumran to John the Baptist.” In his fascinating article (Henoch, 2006), Bertalotto argues that the Qumran community, the communal sect that composed the Dead Sea Scrolls, was not only obsessed with purification but also made the decision to live in the desert—in the absence of water.
Living without water explicitly emphasized the salience of purification rituals involving water, specifically the mei niddah— the Hebrew Bible’s “water of purification”—which was sprinkled on each member of the community during his or her initiation into the sect. The Jewish idea of kapparah—purification through atonement, with water as a vehicle—was incorporated into Christianity by John the Baptist as well: “John, as a mediator of God’s pardon, considered his baptism in water as a substitution for the Yom Kippur ceremony.”
Moving to the medieval era, another historical take on water—this via ritual immersion (mikveh) as the halachic counterpart to the menstruating women (niddah)—is that of the University of Oregon’s Judith R. Baskin. In “Male Piety, Female Bodies: Men Women, and Ritual Immersion in Medieval Ashkenaz” (Jewish Law Association Studies, 2007), Baskin argues that niddah and mikveh, “epitomize facets of an evolving medieval Ashkenazic discussion that encompassed sexual politics, female autonomy, rabbinic authority and the legacy of folk traditions.” Numerous Ashkenazic sources (as well as medieval Christian sources, notes Baskin) portray the status of niddah as a source of discord and even danger for women, and immersion as a vehicle for domestic and communal harmony; Baskin reveals the fascinating interplay of rabbinic kabbalistic sources, together with Christian and folk traditions, in the “water” story.
Bard College’s Jacob Neusner emphasizes the obverse sides of the coin: water is both purifier and defiler. “The paradox of water is that it both contracts uncleanness, by imparting susceptibility to ritual defilement; and removes uncleanness” (“Contexts of Purification: The Halakhic Theology of Immersion—Mishna-Tosefta Tractate Miqvaot in the Context of Tractates Tebul Yom and Parah,” Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 2003). This paradox led Chazal, the rabbinic leadership of the Talmud, to develop a rigid taxonomy and hierarchy, one of the functions of Jewish law, of the various waters in the halachic tradition. Hebrew Scripture knows little of this taxonomy? No problem, asserts Neusner. Beginning with the distinction between stagnant water (okay for washing hands, not for ritual purity); collected water in a pool (suitable for removing ritual uncleanness from utensils and humans); and flowing wate —mayim chayim, literally “living water”—good for removing the ritual impurity of corpses and the defilement that derives from this impurity, Neusner provides a context for understanding the various “waters” found in the Hebrew Bible.
But water is not only defilement and cleanliness; it is politics and warfare as well, as we recall from the shooting between Israel and Syria, lasting for decades, over Syrian diversion of the headwaters of the Jordan. From earliest times water has had a political dimension, most often implicating environmental politics—and none was more heated than the disputes over allocation of scarce water resources in British Mandate Palestine, thence between Israel and neighboring Arab states. Numerous scholarly papers have been written in recent years about these issues; Journal Watcher notes two, from radically different perspectives, which join the issue.
University of Wisconsin’s Samer Alatout (“Bringing Abundance into Environmental Politics: Constructing a Zionist Network of Water Abundance, Immigration, and Colonization,” Social Studies of Science, 2009) argues that water abundance in the Yishuv became a political rallying point around which a Zionist political network developed: Zionist organizations, settlement experts, earth-scientists and technicians, British authorities—stakeholders all (including the British, initially) whose issue was that of increasing the capacity of Palestine to absorb Jewish immigrants; and which, in turn, played a role “delegitimizing the political Palestinian [that is, Arab] presence.” Whilst Alatout nicely contextualizes the water issue in terms of Zionist history, Journal Watcher’s sense is that he drowns in the waters of his own argument: water was important, but not that important; it was only one of many factors in the complex arena of immigration, settlement and Arab-Jewish conflict.
In “Ambiguity in Transboundary Environmental Dispute Resolution: The Israeli-Jordanian Water Agreement” (Journal of Peace Research, 2008), Hebrew University geographer Itay Fischhendler presents the history of water disputes in the context of the larger Arab-Jewish conflict; thence his discussion of how, in crafting the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, ambiguities with respect to the allocation of water resources were deliberately incorporated in the treaty. It was all about the region’s volatility, and about public relations, Fischhendler contends. Water is such a sensitive issue in the region (anybody seen the water level of the Kinneret recently?) that each side wants to present the treaty differently at home, defusing domestic opposition; at the same time, ambiguities “provide leeway to adjust water allocation during a future crisis without the need to renegotiate
From defilement and purification to water use in the Israel; from “U-sh’avtem mayim” to “Splish-splash!”; from Ancient Judea to the Yishuv to Bobby Darin, water is central, indeed our essence.
Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism through the Ages” (ADL) and editor of “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community” (Praeger).