By Rabbi Avi Poupko, Originally Written for Mayyim Hayyim’s Blog
Sacraments are hard to come by in the Jewish tradition. By sacraments, I mean a ritual that is believed to actually be doing something. Our rituals are almost always understood, at least according to mainstream Jewish thought throughout the ages, to be reminding us of something or teaching us an important insight. Rarely are they seen to be actually changing something on some kind of metaphysical plane either in the world or in ourselves. In Catholicism, the Catholic penance or confession provides the person confessing with real absolution from God. There is no real parallel to this kind of ritual in Judaism.
The exception to the above is the ritual of mikveh when performed as part of a conversion. According to both Kabbalists and Jewish Rationalists it is the entering of one’s entire body into a mikveh that literally “turns” the non-Jew into a Jew. Halakhically (according to Jewish law), this needs to be done in front of a beit din (Jewish court comprised of three learned Jews).
For a Rabbi, few experiences can rival the awesomeness of being on a beit din and witnessing a gentile going into the water and a Jew coming out of the water. The fact that a convert to Judaism not only becomes part of the Jewish religion, but that he or she also becomes a member of the Jewish people, makes the moment that much more miraculous. From the second their head emerges from the mikveh waters, in the words of Maimonides: “He (or she) is a full Yisrael in all matters.” Just as your average Jew may choose to engage or not to engage in Jewish life and that decision in no way diminishes their being Jewish from a halakhic perspective-the same is true for any convert to Judaism. They are now full members of Am Yisrael (the Jewish people).
Unfortunately, the atmosphere, staff and aesthetics of most mikvehs in the world do not contribute to the magnitude of the conversion moment. In fact they often detract. It is sometimes difficult to communicate, especially to someone coming from the Christian world where architectural beauty abounds, that a truly wondrous event is taking place in a small and dingy room.
As an Orthodox Rabbi, having Mayyim Hayyim in proximity to my community is a tremendous blessing. I strive to create halakhic moments in which the experience of it is truly felt by all the participants. Performing a conversion in Mayyim Hayyim is a Rabbi’s dream come true. Here the Halakhah and the experience converge; they assist each other, if you will, in a common goal.
Knowing that the mikveh is kosher according to Orthodox standards allayed any fear that I may have had of using an “independent” mikveh. Furthermore, the mikveh guides were totally supportive in my wish that the entire beit din witness the immersion according to current Orthodox practice.
When I told Michael, aka Gideon, that upon emerging from the water he would then be Jewish, the walls and the energy of Mayyim Hayyim strengthened that religious belief for me, the other Rabbis present, and most importantly, for the newest member of Klal Yisrael that was about to appear before us.
Avi served as the Hillel Campus Rabbi at Harvard University from 2005-2007. He has spent the last four years teaching in Israel, first at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem and then at Midreshet Ein Prat-The Israeli Academy for Leadership.
Avi earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Jewish Thought from Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. He also studied at the Yeshiva University’s Gruss Institute in Jerusalem, and received his rabbinic ordination from the High Court in Jerusalem. He is currently a doctoral student at Bar-Ilan University and is in the midst of writing his dissertation on the topic of “The Ontological Status of the Muslim and the Convert in 13th Century Jewish Mystical Writings.” Avi has been the Rabbi at Congregation Ahavas Achim in Newburyport, MA since this past summer.
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