A Trans Jew in the Mikveh

June 7, 2024

By Eli Sobel

This d’var Torah was originally shared with Temple Beth Am in Framingham, MA, for their Pride Shabbat on June 7, 2024

Shabbat Shalom. My name is Eli Lurie Sobel, my pronouns are they and he, and I am honored to be joining you this evening. I work for Keshet, an organization that strives for LGBTQ+ equality in Jewish life. Some other facts about me: I live in Somerville. I grew up in New Jersey — don’t hold it against me. I’m a twin, and yes, I’m the oldest. I DO believe pineapple belongs on pizza. I’m also a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I identify as queer, and transgender, and nonbinary. All of these facts apply. I’m a lot of things. Aren’t we all? Identity is complicated.

I’m Jewish, but I don’t speak much Hebrew. I don’t belong to a synagogue, but I speak and teach at them often. I host a seder every Passover, but I’ve never built a sukkah. And still, I have never questioned, even for a moment, if I’m Jewish enough. That’s because my understanding of my spirituality gives me permission to take what I need from Judaism and leave what I don’t. I call it the DIY approach. Tonight, I want to share with you a bit about what that means to me, as a queer Jew.

I started taking this approach to spirituality at a time when I really needed some support. I was twenty, on leave from college, and miserably depressed. I was living in a very painful in-between period, after I had realized I was trans but before I’d gained the courage to tell anyone. I felt overwhelmed and afraid all the time. I remember thinking I needed something, anything, to ground me.

Someone told me I should go to a mikveh. I rolled my eyes. The mikveh, which you may know, is an ancient pool of living water, the ritual bath that Jews have used for thousands of years for purification or transformative purposes. Mikvehs, or mikva’ot, are most commonly known for their role in the tradition of niddah, a practice in which married Jewish couples abstain from physical contact while one partner is menstruating. Mikva’ot have been and are still used most often by observant Jews who immerse after finishing their period to prepare themselves to resume intimacy with their partner. This might sound antiquated, and it is; niddah and its mikveh traditions have existed since biblical times. I had no interest in niddah and didn’t see why I would ever go to a mikveh.

Then I heard about Mayyim Hayyim, a mikveh in Newton that is a leader in what they call the “open mikveh movement.” Mayyim Hayyim is internationally recognized for their work making mikveh not only accessible but relevant to all types of Jews in all types of situations. Their take is, mikveh should not be characterized only by its relationship to menstruation, or even to the idea of “purity.” It is used in many other circumstances in which a person seeks to transition from a state of unreadiness to a state of readiness. For example, back when the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, Jewish priests and worshippers alike were required to immerse in a mikveh to prepare themselves before they could enter the temple. Even today, many people immerse before Yom Kippur, the holiest of all holidays, which occurs at the start of the Jewish new year and marks an entrance in its own right. Often people immerse before getting married or giving birth. These are just some examples; there are increasingly many creative uses of the mikveh around the world, and Mayyim Hayyim, specifically, is a visionary in this field.

In all the many ways mikva’ot are used, the lowest common denominator is change. One enters a mikveh in a certain state and leaves in a different state. Above all else, mikveh marks a transition. I came to realize that, in a way, this makes it especially relevant to the transgender community. But what made it painful for me to draw this connection is that mikveh was created for the cisgender, heterosexual body. Rabbis always imagined the person participating in niddah as a cisgender woman preparing to return to her cisgender husband, and the practice of immersion developed in response to these archetypes. And you can tell. Immersion traditionally takes place naked, the idea behind this being to parallel the new beginning of a baby in a womb, or the waters of creation in Genesis. The rabbis teach that we exist in the mikveh water as our most stripped-down, essential selves and emerge renewed. But for all its theoretical significance, the ritual depends on the physical body. When one immerses in a mikveh, their body itself takes on the significance of whatever transition they are undergoing physically, spiritually, or emotionally. We call it an “embodied ritual” for a reason.

Remember, I was learning all of this while I was in the middle of my gender identity crisis. The more I read about it, the more tangled up things became: on the one hand, here was a beautiful, culturally-significant way to honor some really important life changes, but on the other, lots of details about mikveh don’t leave space for transgender identity. The whole idea of entering the water naked as the “purest” form of yourself excludes anyone whose body doesn’t feel like it aligns with their truest self. An embodied ritual also requires having a certain amount of trust in your own body and a willingness to treat it as sacred, which can be difficult for anyone with a fraught relationship with their body. Mikveh caught my attention because for someone like me, a trans Jew— especially a trans Jew who was struggling and in the midst of transition— mikveh is simultaneously so right and so wrong. I decided that I would go and immerse in a mikveh, but it had to be on my own terms. I began to explore how to “queer” the ritual: how to make it feel relevant and affirming to my queer self while retaining its original integrity.

Enter: the internet. I began to research. I learned that the mikveh ritual traditionally begins with a careful preparation process, intended to remove every possible barrier between your body and the water. You take off your clothes, jewelry, even your nail polish and contact lenses. When you feel ready in body and in spirit, it’s custom to immerse in the mikveh waters completely three times, bookending each immersion with a blessing.

The traditional prayers said in mikva’ot felt too conservative for my comfort, but I knew I wanted my ritual to include some text of some kind to hold on to, to honor the custom of saying blessings in this space. I spent hours researching alternative mikveh blessings, and I started crafting a ritual that would meet me where I was. I changed the very body-focused preparation process to include only what made me comfortable: I focused less on my physical body itself and more on all that it does for me, on its brilliant ability to adapt and to heal. To connect myself to my Jewish ancestors, I meditated on some rabbis’ choice to call the Jews the “twilight people.” There is a reason our days start and end at the meeting point of day and night, they write—there is something holy about the gray areas, about the inability to be defined, about being neither and both at the same time. That’s exactly where I was, in my in-between, not-quite-out state. I was trans but nobody knew, and I was too afraid to tell them. I remember thinking that there was a whole person inside of me who nobody had ever met before. I saw a future in which I introduced that person to the world. I used to imagine a path of stepping-stones leading towards that person. So, in between my immersions, I read aloud a blessing called the “Traveler’s Prayer for a Safe Passage.” I knew what I needed. I oriented my ritual around preparing my spirit for whatever was to come.

I’d understand why someone might ask me, if I’ve changed so much about the mikveh ritual, was it even Jewish anymore? At what point was I just dunking in a pool? I would respond, what is more Jewish than asking questions? About seeking new ways of understanding? About changing for the better? So many new Jewish traditions that we now take as givens had to be innovated once, had to be welcomed into our culture and sustained by collective action. Think about the gender-neutral b-mitzvah or simchat mitzvah. Yes, it’s new now, but the idea of a bat mitzvah was unheard of once too. Now we can’t imagine our tradition without it. The survival of Judaism depends on its ability to evolve.

My very Jewish mikveh experience left me feeling renewed. Mayyim Hayyim would say I was “ritually ready.” And in the months that followed, I did take some huge new steps: I shared with my friends and family a new name and pronouns. I cut my hair. I claimed the word “nonbinary” for myself. It’s not that the mikveh solved all my problems, but the experience of giving myself autonomy over my own spirituality was so fulfilling that I left feeling empowered. Two brilliant things came out of this experience: one, the realization that connecting my LGBTQ identity with my Jewish identity could be tremendously meaningful, and two, the realization that I was in charge of what that connection looked like.

I felt so at home in the space I had created for myself at the mikveh, and it felt necessary that it continued to grow to include others. In the years since my first immersion, I have collaborated with Mayyim Hayyim to create programming intended to welcome transgender people to the mikveh, programming led by trans people ourselves. In just a few weeks, I will be facilitating Mayyim Hayyim’s mikveh education class with its first-ever cohort of entirely trans and nonbinary students.

You’d be stunned—or at least I was—to find out how much writing and art is out there by and about queer and trans Jews. We’re everywhere, and we’ve got a lot to say. When you get home, I encourage you to google “queer Jewish rituals.” You’ll find prayers to be said before having gender-affirming surgery. You’ll find blessings for binding one’s chest, modeled after the blessing for wrapping oneself in a tallit. You’ll find essays and books with titles like “Queer Naked Seder” and The Dyke and the Dybbuk. I find it astounding and inspiring to see how people generate queer Jewish content to meet them where they are in their own journeys. The fact that it happens again and again speaks to just how moving it can be to connect different parts of the self. And the connection is so clear: both my queer self and my Jewish self are constantly being made and remade. I let them change as they need to. And all of us can do that, no matter what our identity is. All of us must choose, every day, if we want to show up as our fullest, truest self. All of us can love that self as it grows. All of us can create sacred ways of honoring that growth. Maybe with a mikveh. Maybe not.

I want to close with a blessing written by two trans rabbis, Elliot Kukla and Ari Lev Fornari. I said, I don’t speak Hebrew, so please forgive me, Rabbi, for being a little loose with the translation:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam asher kidshanu b’shem mitzvat hityatzrut.

Blessed, are you, G-d, who makes us holy through the mitzvah of self-formation.

I’d argue that self-formation is a mitzvah for every person, regardless of identity. Thank you for welcoming me into your space, for welcoming me as the person I am today. It might be different tomorrow. Offering this safety is a mitzvah too. Shabbat shalom.