At the recent ground breaking ceremony for the new Oxford Mikvah, Lady Elaine Sacks addressed the audience.

“This is a special day for me: the building or opening of a new mikvah joins us spiritually to all our ancestors, keeping the same mitzvah through the ages.Mikvaot have been built from the earliest times in all parts of the world where there were Jewish communities, and in recent years archaeologists have discovered a number of remains.

In the heart of London, in the City, a mikvah was uncovered, and is believed to be 700 yrs old, dating from the 1200s.  The remains are quite clear, showing seven steps, going down into a small pool, and the archaeologist reports that it is finely constructed with great care as if it were something very special.

Mikvaot have also been unearthed in Bath, and in Bristol, and I remember not long ago, a mikvah was found in Highgate, in London. They were generally built inside a house, sometimes quite hidden away, for privacy and probably secrecy, and used by women of the neighbourhood.

We are reminded, sometimes, just how far back our people and our customs go.  On one of our foreign trips, some years ago, we switched on the TV in the hotel room, the Discovery channel I think, and found a documentary about the great Egyptian temples.We saw magnificent buildings in Luxor, in Abu Simbel.  Their beauty has endured across the centuries.  But then we stopped to think – what else has endured from that ancient Egyptian culture?  Only fine buildings.Who built these buildings?  Some of our own ancestors must have been right there, slaves in Egypt, building the cities of Pithom and Ramses.  The Hebrews were nomads and in Egypt became slaves, with no power, no wealth, no freedom.The Hebrews had nothing to pass on to their children but their beliefs, their religion, and the power of education.

When Moses was about to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, he did not speak to them about forming an army, or building fine new places of worship.  Three times he spoke of “teaching your children” – what happened on this day, why do we do this rite, what does this mean.

We are here today because of our beliefs, laws and customs through the ages, passed on from parents and teachers to children and pupils. A couple of years ago my husband had a fascinating encounter.  A non–Jewish dignitary came up to him at a reception and said: “Oh Chief Rabbi, my wife is so looking forward to meeting you, she’s Jewish you know!”   So, he introduced his wife – and it turned out her family were Jewish 550 years ago!  They were Marranos (hidden Jews).

The mitzvah of mikvah, the ritual bath for Jewish women, has been with us through the years and the centuries, in times of slavery and of freedom.In order to keep Jewish marriages according to the law, Jewish women would undergo great hardships and danger – travelling long distances before we had cars and trains, submerging in freezing water, in the dark, before we had the comforts that we have today. Periods of abstinence in a marriage can keep it special, and fresh, and so many people nowadays speak of renewal, of honeymoon feelings, of how keeping the laws of mikvah has helped their marriage.

It is truly wonderful to see how there is a resurgence of mikvahs opening, here, in Europe, and that women are taking a renewed and active interest in this important mitzvah.  I sometimes teach brides before their wedding, and I am so often surprised and touched by how sophisticated career women really take such a keen interest.  They want to emphasise the spiritual side, and give their marriage an extra dimension. It is not always easy, after all, a marriage takes two people, but even if it slips sometimes, there is the knowledge, and the will to come back to it.  Mikvah may have the aura of the ultra-Orthodox, but a surprising number of women, who are more middle-of-the-road, still value this spiritual side to their marriage.

In an article in an American paper, in July this year, I found the headline: “Feminist Jews revive ritual bath for women”.
It seems that thousands of women – Liberal and Reform Jews – are rediscovering mikvah, as a form of spiritual cleansing – regardless of their marital status or activities.  It is apparently a chance to appreciate the miracle of the body, or of childbirth, or to spiritually cleanse after an illness or sadness. It is certainly interesting – but we prefer to stick to the original, traditional purpose!

Here in Oxford there was indeed a mikvah in medieval times just five minutes walk away and it is wonderful that after five years hard planning, this new mikvah is now on its way. I know how much work Mr Kevin Fehler, and Rabbi Grossbaum, have put into designing this mikvah and thank you to Mr Andrew Smith, your local MP for joining us all on this special day.”