Why Immerse in the Mikveh?
Immersion in the mikveh (sometimes pronounced mikvah) actualizes the transition between the convert's old identity and his or her new one as a Jew.
Excerpted with permission from Becoming a Jew (Jonathan David Publishers, Inc.).
What physical act could a person perform in order to symbolize a radical change of heart, a total commitment? Is there a sign so dramatic, dynamic, and all-encompassing that it could represent the radical change undergone by the convert to Judaism?
Jewish tradition prescribes a profound symbol. It instructs the conversion candidate to place himself or herself in a radically different physical environment--in water rather than air. This leaves the person floating--momentarily suspended without breathing--substituting the usual forward moving nature and purposeful stride that characterize his or her waking movements with an aimlessness, a weightlessness, a detachment from the former environment. Individuality, passion, ego--all are submerged in the metamorphosis from the larval state of the present to a new existence.
Ritual immersion is the total submersion of the body in a pool of water. This pool and its water are precisely prescribed by Jewish law. Immersion, tevillah, is the common core component of every [traditional] Jewish conversion process, for male and female, adult and child, ignoramus and scholar. It is sine qua non, and a conversion ceremony without immersion is unacceptable to the traditional religious community and simply not Jewish in character.
This requirement of immersion admits of no compromise, no matter where in the world one finds oneself. (While Conservative rabbis similarly require mikveh [sometimes pronounced mikvah] for conversion, Reform rabbis generally do not, although a tendency to more traditional symbols and a sense that a uniform conversion process is desirable are encouraging greater use of the immersion component even among the Reform.)
Religious Functions of the Mikveh
Several religious functions are served by this powerful symbol of submerging in water. In the days of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, the mikveh was used by all Jews who wanted to enter the precincts of the Sanctuary. The law required every person inside the Temple grounds to be in a spiritually pure state appropriate to the pristine spirituality of the Sanctuary itself.
Throughout Jewish history, unmarried women have immersed in the mikveh prior to their wedding; married women immerse at the end of seven days of stainless purity from the end of each monthly menstrual cycle, in preparation for the resumption of family relations in their most fertile days.
A major function of immersion in the mikveh is for conversion to Judaism. The sages declare that a gentile who wishes to become a Jew must undergo the identical process by which Jewish ancestors converted. As Jews performed immersion at Mt. Sinai to complete the conversion process they had begun with circumcision as they left Egypt, so converts in every age must immerse in a mikveh.