Take a deep breath, exhale, and immerse fully under the water for one instant with nothing else getting in the way, right?
Well, not completely wrong. Most of the time that is indeed the idea.
But what about someone who can’t? What if a person is not physically able to immerse independently? Does that mean he can’t convert to Judaism? Is she not allowed to be intimate with her partner because she hasn’t immersed in the mikveh following her period?
Having spent a large percentage of my life believing that the basis of halacha (Jewish law) is about restrictions and thou-shalt-not’s, I might have once believed this was true. However, delving into the world of Jewish text, I am often (happily) proven wrong. I am completely energized by the fact that the more I know, the more I learn that halacha is often more lenient than otherwise assumed.
In fact, someone who cannot immerse independently, according to Jewish law, is permitted to have assistance. This “helper” can do whatever is necessary to support the immersee, including holding on during the immersion if it helps. (See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 198:28.)
That’s right – holding on. Without letting go. Doesn’t this fly in the face of the whole idea of removing barriers to immersion? Turns out not, if the helper’s hands are wet with the waters of the mikveh. The Rabbis (the “back in the day” kind) found a way to make it possible, legally, for a person with physical disabilities to still enjoy the experience of immersing in the mikveh.
Interesting, indeed. The goal here is to get people into the water – not keep them out.
At Mayyim Hayyim, we have facilitated conversions for over 300 babies. I have been in awe of: first-time parents immersing newborns (sometimes as young as 8 weeks) with no previous baby experience, couples overcoming tremendous fertility problems, mothers in all their post-partum array, mothers who are not Jewish feeling largely out of their element, adoptive parents finally – finally – cradling their new baby. I admire these parents’ decision to bring their babies to the mikveh and celebrate their welcome into the Jewish people.
When I came across the text about the “immersion helper” not needing to let go of the person immersing, I wondered: What If? What if this text about providing physical assistance also applied to a baby?
I sent the question to an amazing resource: www.yoatzot.org – the Women’s Health and Halacha Website run by Nishmat in Jerusalem. To my great relief: Yes. According to Jewish law, a parent immersing a baby does not need to let go, provided that the hands are wet with the water of the mikveh first.
What a relief to know that with all the emotion playing into immersing a baby in the mikveh, letting go of this baby under the water is one anxiety that does not need to be felt. How wonderful that halacha provides an option to hold on when desired.
Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and
Paula Brody & Family Education Center