by José Portuondo-Dember
It’s easy to think of going to the mikveh in terms of “washing away.” My very first experience with a ritual bath was my baptism in the Roman Catholic Church as an infant. It was couched in the language of washing away original sin. As I turned to Judaism and began learning the rules and scenarios that require use of a mikveh, the emphasis always seemed to be on getting clean of some kind of impurity. It makes a certain sense: water is great for washing away the grime, sweat and dirt that build up on our bodies; we use it to wash dishes so that we can eat off them again.
Yet, for all the logic of the image, I have never liked it.
Partly, it’s because I have a hard time with the concept of getting spiritually clean. I don’t like the ways that applying the concept of purity to people is often a stepping stone to deciding certain folks need to be gotten rid of. People are mixed up and messy and I’m not interested in pretending otherwise. Furthermore, at a personal level, while I have certainly felt the need to repair negative consequences of mistakes that I’ve made, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of ‘washing away’ some part of my past. Most of my mistakes have been learning experiences and they have certainly shaped the person that I am today.
That’s why I love that the traditional blessings for the mikveh say nothing at all about washing, or purifying, or becoming clean. Instead, the key verb is immersion.
When I went to the mikveh to mark my return to the Judaism of my ancestors, I wasn’t going to wash away the Catholicism I had been raised in. I’ve never wanted to pretend that I didn’t grow up Catholic. It’s a part of my personal history that I will always cherish. Going to the mikveh wasn’t about not being Catholic anymore, it was about entering Judaism. I was going to mark my full immersion into Judaism: heart, body and soul.
Similarly, the next major mikveh event of my life came shortly before I married my husband in 2010. Once again, my intention had nothing to do with washing anything away. In a couple of days I would become someone that I had never been before, a husband, and it only becomes more true every day that this is a role that can’t be compartmentalized. Going to the mikveh was about diving fully into this new adventure and letting it surround and infuse me with everything it had to offer.
In a way, I see going to the mikveh as analogous to glazing ceramics. The dunking isn’t about leaving something behind—it’s about picking something up. It’s about being immersed and coated, and bringing some of that essence back with me as I engage my future.
José is a descendant of the Jews of Spain that converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. He cherishes the religious legacies of Catholicism, Judaism and Lucumí that are deeply interwoven in the Spanish Caribbean cultures. As an M.Div. candidate at Andover Newton Theological School, one of his primary vocational interests is understanding and meeting the needs of people that have connections to multiple religious traditions.