Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mikveh Madness

In the Lonely Man of Faith, Rav Soloveitchik famously discerned two human archetypes in the varying accounts of Creation presented both in Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 (read yesterday as the weekly Torah reading), and also evident from his personal observations and experiences of modernity. It's not my intention to discuss the Rav's compelling confession in full here, but I would like to make use of his thesis to describe some of the sadness I'm feeling today.

While describing what the Rav termed “Adam I”, he described a social creature whose innate humanity (and therefore reflection of being created in God's image) is manifest by the command to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Man's mastery over science, nature, obsession with technological advance, and constant quest for dignity are to be understood as one of two major operating principles, and an important part of what it means to be a human. I'd like to cite part of the Rav's description of this personality:

     Dignity is a social and behavioral category, expressing not an intrinsic existential quality but a            technique of living, a way of impressing society, the knowhow of commanding respect and                  attention of the other fellow, a capacity to make one's presence felt. In Hebrew, the noun kavod,          dignity, and the noun koved, weight, gravitas, stem from the same root . . . Hence dignity is is              measured not by the inner worth of the in-depth personality, but by the accomplishments of the            surface personality. (Lonely Man of Faith, pg. 24).

I'm not a sociologist, nor am I a psychologist. It would seem to me, though, that, with frequent publicity, “spiritual leaders” repeatedly fail to respect the human dignity of others, and have manifest their personal perverted drives for power by using and and objectifying others. Sometimes, its a lack of respect for property or civil liberties; sometimes, its a lack of respect for honestly held feelings and experiences; often, its a lack of respect for sexual privacy and the infinite human value present in each soul. All of the time, it's the opposite of the values real spiritual leaders ought to be promoting as their raison d'etre. The problem is much more deeply rooted than the surface symptoms and manifestations we so often read about, and is inherent to the money, fame, and power so easily abused in organized religion. “Responsibility” is vital in the Rav's formulation of Adam I's healthy exercise of human power; it's totally absent far too often in today's rabbinate and in religious and other leadership structures generally. And then there's “Adam the Second,” an archetype even more sorely absent, and one that ought to be a balanced part of religious existence.

For “Adam the Second,” his human drive is manifest not in exercising (we hope responsibly) human domination and control, but rather in the experience of the divine inherent in being.

     However, while the cosmos provokes Adam the first to quest for power and control, thus making        him ask the functional “how” question, Adam the second responds to the call of the cosmos by            engaging in a different kind of cognitive gesture. He does not ask a single functional question.            Intead his inquiry is of a metaphysical nature and a threefold one. He wants to know: “Why is it?”      “What is it?” “Who is it?” (Lonely Man of Faith, pg. 20)

The mikveh is the ancient Jewish ritual bath. Composed of natural water, its use represents this important and oft-neglected aspect of existence. For many reasons, our modern society renders it increasingly difficult to face the mystery of our own existence, and existence as a whole, and to confront our human role and responsibility in light of the grandeur, loneliness, and awesome privilege of simply being. Undoubtedly, part of it is our obsession with mastery, technology, fame, and ourselves; in other words, the extreme and growing overemphasis of “Adam the First.” Water is a universal symbol of rebirth, and a Jewish symbol of purity, introspection, and the relationship between an individual and the Master of the Universe. Personally, my experience using the mikveh (aside from the one time I caught Conjunctivitis from a toxic body of water in Jerusalem's old city on the Eve of Yom Kippur) has been fragile and meaningful. Alone in the room with the water, I recall feeling God's presence and resolving more strongly to improve, to change, and to focus. Partly the ritual and partly the religious significances and deep connection so many generations of our ancestors, the mikveh is the ultimate in religious confrontations with God and with one's own self. The horrid abuse of this intimate sanctified space reminds me of the forgotten holiness in our world, and leaves me shaken.

It could just be me, but I often feel as though even our Jewish religious culture rejects the fundamental attitude of religious awe, focusing instead exclusively on scholarship, achievement, image, news, and a variety of other public and social things. I think it's time to shift the scales a bit, especially in this era of Facebook and Twitter, and time to focus more on private faith, quality of character, and authentic religious experience. I'm no prophet, but it seems to me the shechinah is shedding tears during this time of joy. If She isn't, I am, and I know I'm not alone.

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