She said to us, her beit din, ”I don’t want to do it if the bottom is rocky or silty.” We were doing a conversion in the mountains and planned mikvah immersion in a nearby lake. We had only to find a good spot. Our prospective convert was clear about her needs: The place should be easily accessible with plenty of parking for all her friends, and lots of room to eat and dance at the waterfront. The lake bottom should be soft and clean and sandy. She made it clear she wouldn’t do it if the bottom was rocky–it could hurt her feet–silty or seaweedy–that would just be ucky.
For the next couple of days, we were so busy looking for this perfect place–driving, wading, feeling around for rocks and seaweed (no one ever warned me about this in rabbinical school!)–that I had no time to admit to myself or anyone else that I was deeply shocked by her words.
Truth is, if I had been told I had to walk on nails for my conversion, I would have done it and said the bracha.
When I was studying to become a Jew, I was taught the following principles which, through all my subsequent seminary learning, I still hold today:
- A mitzvah is the act itself, and it shouldn’t have to get, as my mother would say, all fancied up to be acceptable either to the doer or to God.
- Hidur, beautification of the mitzvah, while a positive thing, is secondary to the mitzvah act itself. The lack of ability to beautify a mitzvah is not a reason to refrain from doing a mitzvah. (That would be a shande.)
- What we call spirituality isn’t only or necessarily about the creation of a certain set of beautiful sights, sounds, smells, and/or feelings. In fact, too much of all that beautification can obscure that which is really happening.
After conversion and years processing that experience, I have come to embrace the following irrational beliefs:
- Whether entering into a lovely mikvah or a crummy mikvah, when a convert immerses three times, lightning splits the sky.
- It doesn’t matter if anyone notices the flashes, lightning still happens (though not noticing is a shame).
My own conversion was fairly bare-bones Conservadox: Immersion, Sh’ma, blessings. I remember being extraordinarily moved when the mikvah attendant proclaiming my going down and coming up each time, “Kosher!”
I know there was lightning because it struck me full force right there in the water. This was no gentle rebirthing as many modern mikvah metaphors suggest. It was more like my heart stopped and then was started again. I was still me, just really changed.
There are no words to describe this, though it might be possible to say that all the pieces of my personal universe were taken out and then put back but in different order, with visible and invisible corresponding shifts in the upper and lower worlds.
Similarly, there is no poem or song that can enhance such an event. Today, as a rabbi doing conversions, I cling to the bare-bones of the Tradition: immersion, Sh’ma, blessings. The pronouncements of the attendant. Let the convert enter in silence, noticing everything for his or her self. Blessing God. That much, all by itself, is already more than any human can process.
This week, a gentle, intelligent, and sincere young man met me and two other rabbis (whom I thank again) at Mayyim Hayyim, the lovely mikvah in Newton. There, having satisfied the beit din, he immersed three times saying Sh’ma and brachot. I don’t know if he felt lightning. I’m writing this today because I did, again. I do every time I am near a convert immersing, even if they don’t seem to. Even if they wouldn’t have done it standing on rocks or seaweed.
No where here am I saying that a mikvah, indoor or outdoor, should not be beautiful. On the contrary. Twenty five years ago I immersed in the most lovely redwood mikvah California had to offer and I am grateful for the sweetness of that memory. A thoughtfully constructed, beautiful mikvah is a blessing to a community, drawing people into a circle of mitzvah and spirituality.
This is what I am saying: Where ever you immerse for mikvah, whatever the conditions, when you step in, listen. It is my personal and professional experience that there may be thunder.
As you immerse, lift up your eyes.
There will be lightning.
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