Tshuva/Repentance is an important concept in religious thought and practice. Let’s face it – as difficult as it may be to stomach, we are just not perfect. In order to move ahead with our lives and not get caught in existential angst, a mechanism must be in place for processing our sins. Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, have special emphasis on tshuva/repentance. In the late Second Temple times, however, a new Jewish sect came up with a new spin on an older tradition and redefined the process of absolution, causing a rift. I’m talking about the theological gulf between mikveh – ritual bath – and baptism (and maybe some surprising similarities).

In Judaism, mikveh is a process for removing “ritual impurity”. The body comes into contact with something unsavory and it becomes “ritually impure”. Once in this state, one cannot worship at the Temple and in some cases, the “ritual impurity” can pass from person to person – it’s contagious. Ritual impurity is a natural process experienced through no fault of one’s own. Most people come into contact with menstrual blood, seminal emissions, dead bodies or nasty bugs in their lives, and therefore many, many people were in a state of almost continual ritual impurity. Only when necessary for worship at the Temple or in order to avoid spreading impurity was mikveh absolutely necessary.

During the Second Temple Period, the ritual of mikveh took on new, additional meanings for some Jewish sects. As eschatological fervor increased, the idea of cleansing from physical impurity morphed into purifying one’s soul in preparation for the end of times. In order for a soul to be pure, it needed to be free of sin. Traditional Judaism gives mechanism for cleansing from sin – namely, repentance and, if needed, punishment. The Torah clearly lays out an entire judicial system for punishment which accounts for atonement for many of man’s sins. The famous verse, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” is part of the judicial system to remove guilt from a sinner. Sins against God, religious sins, can be removed through repentance consisting of remorse, sacrifice, and a change in one’s actions.

Some late Second Temple Jewish sects took things one step farther. They introduced immersion in a mikveh as the final act “sealing the deal” on repentance. These Jewish sects included not only the John the Baptist sect and the Jesus sect, but also the Qumran sect, and perhaps others. Josephus describes one Jew, Banus who “bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day, in order to preserve his chastity” (Life, 11), using water for purifying his spirit and not just his body. The Community Rule of the Qumran sect describes similar practices for its adherents.

Qesr al Yehud – Baptismal site on the Jordan

Mikveh was seen by these sects as a public action indicating the inner work of repentance and, as such, a sort of renewal.  The idea of being “born again” through immersion was the next step in the process of divorcing mikveh practices from removing bodily impurity.  Thus, over time, immersion (baptisma in Greek), became one of the key rituals in Christianity for removing sin and being reborn, and is not considered by Christians today to be a mechanism for removing physical ritual impurity, a concept which doesn’t exist in modern-day Christianity.

While it is important to note that mikveh was not maintained by normative Rabbinic Judaism as a mechanism for absolution of sin, it does have a transformative role in conversion.  Converts to Judaism immerse in a mikveh as the culmination of their conversion, as a sort of rebirth.  This practice of mikveh for converts was not documented until the time of the Gemara, much after the time of Jesus and the flourishing of other Jewish sects.  Although the Gemara may reflect an earlier reality, no contemporary Second Temple references refer to mikveh in the case of converts. (Conversion was accomplished through circumcision for male converts, according to Josephus.)

Christianity and Judaism have been pushing off of each other for centuries.  The reality, however, is that Christianity grew out of Judaism, and so many Christian practices had their roots in Jewish customs.  In the case of mikveh and baptism today, the ascribed meanings are significant and show divergences in theology.  Jews don’t believe that sins can be removed through mikveh, and Christians don’t believe that sins can be removed without baptism.  But they share the common ground of believing that repentance is necessary in order to move forward for a positive future.

As we move into the Jewish New Year, and work for a better future free of sins of the past, I wish everyone a Good Year, and that we may all be sealed and signed in the book of life!
Shana Tova!  Gmar Hatima Tova!

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