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Using the Mikveh as a Conversion Tool

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove recently wrote an opinion in New York’s “The Jewish Week” newspaper in which he recommended that all Rabbis use the Mikveh as a way to sanctify intermarriages, convert non-Jews to Judaism, and sanctify Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. It is an interesting and creative idea to standardize how these things are done. Permit me to quote exerpts from him directly on his idea:

“As a rabbi I have a commitment to uphold Jewish law and, as such, not officiate at interfaith weddings. As a rabbi, I also have an obligation to meet people where they are, and serve the Jewish future by helping build Jewish identity. So what exactly is a rabbi to do?”

“I offer a proposal for consideration, for synagogue communities like my own, for the Conservative movement and perhaps other arms of Jewish life to consider.

“By my read of the sources, from the Talmudic period onward, there is an established position permitting conversion to Judaism by way of mikveh immersion for a woman, and for a man, circumcision and immersion in a mikveh, coupled with a course of study.

“Mikveh immersion is the Jewish act ritualizing a sacred transformation from one state of being to another.

“In our world where there are no guarantees regarding who our children will fall in love with, it is incumbent upon us to lower, not raise, the barriers to entry to being a Jew. If a non-Jew desires to build a Jewish home with a Jewish partner, a rabbi’s job is to nurture that desire, draw both partners close and make the onramp to Jewish life as inviting and doable as possible.

“In broad brushstrokes, what I am suggesting is: A conversion process whose length is left to the discretion of the sponsoring rabbi; mikveh immersion becoming part of the pre-wedding preparation for all couples; and mikveh immersion becoming part of the b’nai mitzvah process.

“Such a policy would not meet the needs of every interfaith relationship. But it would indicate we are doing everything we can — in spirit and in deed — to meet people where they are while remaining within the bounds of Jewish law.

“I believe that if a large enough swath of the Jewish world, in the diaspora and in Israel, embraced such an inclusive approach to Jewish identity, it may in the long term bear the potential to shift the politics on the age-old question of “Who is a Jew?” and redound to the benefit of the Jewish people as a whole.”

The Torah talks frequently about washing to become religiously purified. I think that if both partners of an intermarriage, or indeed any marriage, take a dip in the Mikveh, that would “purify” them for the upcoming marriage. This does not convert the non-Jewish partner, but it puts something Jewish into their marriage, and would justify a Rabbi performing the marriage ceremony. I suggest that both parties recite the “shehecheyanu” blessing in the Mikveh, thanking God for bringing them to this “season”. The same for Bar and Bat Mitzvah children, where the Mikveh immersion would effectively convert them to Judaism without any more ado.

Rabbi Cosgrove is the senior rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, a Conservative congregation.

“The Jewish Week”, April 7, 2017, page 1.

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