It was a week filled with water—starting with my partner Ever’s conversion to Judaism by immersion in the mikveh, the womb of the universe that moves us from one state of being to the other.
It was a week filled with water—starting with my partner Ever’s conversion to Judaism by immersion in the mikveh, the womb of the universe that moves us from one state of being to the other. Two days later, I poured the traditional measurement of 9 kavim (about two big buckets) of water over the body of a deceased member of our community, as part of the ritual of taharah that prepares Jews for burial. I worked on a team that consisted of two out of the three people who declared Ever Jewish as part of their beit din.
All that’s to say: we grant each other permission to move through states of being. It is through communal witnessing that we can affirm one another’s status.
Conversion consists of a few ritual moments. The beit din, the court of judgment, assembles three learned Jews to ask questions, hear the story, and celebrate the journey of the person who is converting. Leading up to this moment, most will study with a class, or a rabbi or teacher, studying the yearly cycle, life cycle rituals, theology, and personal values and passions within Judaism. The beit din can be an interrogation, or it can be a celebrating conversation with the soon-to-be Jew.
After the beit din confers privately, the prospective Jew is welcomed back in, and the beit din declares them ready to join the Jewish people. The three members of the beit din sign a certificate, and the soon-to-be Jew exits the room (if community is gathered outside the room, they will often hoot and holler, at this point!).
After the document is signed, the soon-to-be Jew and the beit din go to the mikveh, where they will prepare to immerse. Cleaning under fingernails, behind the ears, rinsing off, preparing to dip in the sacred waters of the mikveh is almost as important as the immersion itself.
Once ready, the beit din, soon-to-be Jew, and the mikveh guide enter the room. As the soon-to-be Jew immerses the first time, they say the brakhah, the first ritually binding blessing they will say: “Blessed are You, Source of all Life, who sanctifies us through your mitzvah of immersion,” to which the beit din, mikveh guide, and even a network assembled outside the door with their ears pressed to it shout, “AMEN!”
After the second dunk, they say the blessing upon reaching new occasions: “Blessed are You, Creator of Newness, who has enabled us to reach this time.”
A third immersion, and when they are ready, they emerge.
After drying off, the new Jew is blessed with a new name, blessings from the beit din, and the community assembled!
Two days later, when I drove to the funeral home to perform a taharah, and we gathered around the table of the body of the deceased, I noticed two of the women, the rabbis, my teachers, who converted my beshert, who saw, named, blessed, rejoiced with Ever as she became Jewish.
We began by saying a blessing over the deceased, declaring her name, daughter of her parents’ names, locating her lineage. We continued through the ritual, focusing on her humanness, her dignity, the wisdom of her body, the presence of her soul in the room.
The center of the taharah ritual is the purification itself. Using 9 kavim of water (in two large buckets) the assembled six or so people pour a steady stream of water on the deceased. Suspending a canopy over them, standing with our backs to them, they are immersed in a kind of mikveh. They are naked, they are declared pure. Over the time that the water is poured, the team assembled declares, “tehorah hi/tehorah hu,” this person is pure.
The team reads liturgy from the Song of Songs, describing the beauty of the person before us: their hair, their eyes, their neck, beautiful. And even in the dissonance—as in our death we are not beautiful, poised, erotic like in the Song of Songs—we declare each other beautiful, worthy. A holy vessel that has contained the spark of God.
In the upcoming episode of Kaddish, Dr. Joy Ladin explains that “in taharah, we are able to be alive for just a few more moments.” Even after death, this ritual that sees beauty, declares purity, readiness, and dearness to the Source keeps us alive a bit longer. In episode 3 of Kaddish, Dr. Ladin and Noach Dzmura explore the role of transgender-affirming taharah rituals, and how they can affirm transgender Jews in life, not just in death. It is taharah that sees all parts of who we are, who we were, and declares us “tahor.”
In the span of 72 hours, I stood in the mikveh room with my beshert and watched as she became a Jew: declared Jewish through reciting a prayer and having it responded to with “amen,” declared Jewish through immersing in the living waters, declared Jewish through receiving a Hebrew name.
In the span of those 72 hours, I stood in the taharah room with my teachers and community and watched as we prepared someone for burial: declared holy, through reciting the Song of Songs over her holy body; declared pure, through pouring the living waters on her; declared beloved, and transitioned into death by blessing her Hebrew name.
Taharah only makes sense when we start to parse the web of connections to life. Through our living our death might begin to make sense. Through our immersion in life’s living waters, by declaring ourselves and each other holy, we connect to our past and our future.
To learn more about the Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha of Philadelphia and taharah, listen to Episode 2 of Kaddish the podcast, “Wash and Be Clean.” Episode 2 features stories of Rabbi Linda Holtzman and David Zinner, here.
Ariana Katz is the host of Kaddish, a podcast about death, mourning, and the people who do it. Ariana is a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. She is a member of the Philadelphia Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha, a volunteer chaplain and board member at Planned Parenthood of South East Pennsylvania, and a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. Ariana is in training to become a soferet, a scribe of sacred Jewish text.