Image: Photo of the community mikveh at Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, CA. This is the mikveh where I became a Jew. (Ruth Adar, 2006)
In Mikveh Part 1: What is it? I described the mikveh in prosaic terms: what it is and when we use it. In this part, I will introduce the important matter of the meaning of the mikveh.
For every ritual, there is an exterior reason and an interior experience. The exterior reason for many things in Jewish life is halakhah: “this is the Jewish WAY of doing things” or “this is what we understand ourselves to have been commanded to do.” We hang a mezuzah on the doorpost a particular way. We circumcise our sons at eight days of age. As I said in the earlier post, we use the mikveh for conversion, as part of the rituals surrounding sex and bodily emissions, for the purification of new cooking vessels, and for spiritual practices connected with holidays and significant life events.
The meaning of the mikveh, as with any other ritual experience, goes far beyond “what” and “why.” It extends into the interior experiences of the participants and the sense they make of those experiences. Some of those experiences are intellectual, but many of them are sensory. Many may be difficult to put into words. Some shape themselves into metaphor.
I’m going to limit myself to talking about mikveh for conversion in this article, but with the note that all its uses are interconnected and inform each other.
Strangeness: Candidates prepare for immersion by showering off, combing their hair, and removing anything that might get between them and the water. This usually happens in a room adjacent to the mikveh. The immediate impression is of going into the restroom at the synagogue, but then abruptly deviates from the norm. We do not normally walk into the restroom at shul and strip. There is not usually a grooming “to do” list on the wall. We have entered liminal space: there is nothing normal about this. Depending on the preparation the candidate has had for this ritual, the strangeness may engender anything from a feeling of being slightly off balance to a mild panic.
Nakedness: We go naked to the mikveh. This calls up the metaphor of birth, but it also speaks to the vulnerability of the convert. Even more than on Yom Kippur, we have to shed all masks to enter the mikveh: no clothing, no eye glasses, no hearing aids, no wedding ring, no jewelry, no fingernail polish, no “extras” that can reasonably be removed. Hair is washed and combed out beforehand. We enter the mikveh completely unadorned. I recall being acutely aware that the beit din (rabbi/witnesses) outside the door were all fully clothed.
Modesty: In order to deal with nakedness while remaining modest, everyone’s behavior alters. The candidate usually gets into the water before the witness enters, then calls out “ready!” The witness enters, looking at the ceiling, or a book, and will only look directly at the candidate when they are fully immersed, to certify that the immersion is total. This, too, may feel awkward to the candidate, whether they are embarrassed to be naked or not. Again, we are reminded that we are in liminal space, the space between Jewish and not-Jewish, born and not-yet-born.
Steps: The mikveh has steps going down into the water. It may look, to some eyes, like a stairway to nowhere. The candidate has been on a journey for a long time, a journey to this place, this moment. It is a stairway to a place we cannot see but for which the heart longs. As we walk down the steps, we gradually experience the feeling of the water.
Buoyancy: Our experience of gravity is altered by the mikveh because water is buoyant. This may be an exhilarating feeling, or a relief; it may be unnerving or even frightening. It puts some candidates off balance, heightening the sense of vulnerability. Buoyancy also may make total immersion tricky – in a natural body of water with salt water, total immersion may even require effort.
Temperature: In a modern indoor mikveh, the water is usually heated and may feel quite spa-like. Some candidates describe this feeling as womb-like, comforting, relaxing. If it is a natural body of water, or there is no heat, then the water may be bracingly cold, even uncomfortable. A cold mikveh reminds us that this water is not our natural element, and may introduce a feeling of danger.
Death: Water is not the natural element of human beings, no matter how well they swim. If we breathe water, we will die. The candidate for conversion is making a change of identity, which is like a little death and a rebirth. The candidate is required to be completely immersed, every hair, every fingertip: it is a statement of total commitment and nothing less. They must be “all in” for this transformation. For some candidates, for whom water is a frightening element, this aspect of the experience is all too real.
Rebirth: The waters of the mikveh, mayyim hayyim, “living water,” is often likened to the amniotic fluid in the womb. When a candidate for conversion immerses in the mikveh, it is as if they are returning to the womb, and when they emerge, it is a new birth into a new Jewish identity. Certainly, there are elements of the old self – the whole body! – but a new Jew is born.
Emergence: From the moment the new Jew ascends the stairs of the mikveh, they are part of Am Yisrael forever. Just as we make aliyah (“go up”) when we immigrate to the Land of Israel, and when we go up to chant Torah or its blessings, the candidate ascends to their Jewish life, a life full of the joys and the responsibilities of Torah.