Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Washing the doubt away

Here's an interesting tidbit to start your day: according to a study recently published in the journal Science, washing your hands after making a decision can actually reduce the likelihood of second guessing that decision.  In other words, if after making a decision you wash your hands, you're more likely to be confident and content with your decision.

For me, this brings up two overlapping thoughts.  One is, as the article touches on, that religious ceremonies involving water, such as immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath) are probably based on something more profound, and more interesting, than mere ancient superstition.  This isn't just some silly folk-way. There seems to be something deep within us (whether it’s biologically or societally based, I can’t even guess) that responds to water, and sees it as a boundary of some sort. I always learned that the mikvah is supposed to symbolize the womb – coming out of it is not a cleansing, but a rebirth. When we wash our hands, or come out of the water, we’ve entered a new stage, and we don’t have to look back at the old one (or, at least, we don’t have to be beholden to it).

This idea also brings up the overarching issue of ritual. Many have pointed out that human beings are ritualistic beings. We need ritual in our lives, as a way to mark time and transitions. I’ve even heard some of the popular Angry Atheists (I think it was Richard Harris) say that, in a perfect, atheistic world, we’d still have to find appropriate, non-religious rituals to mark these moments*. It’s pretty close to a universally accepted truth – ritual is important, and ritual is powerful. Ritual, at it’s core, speaks to something deep inside of us – it gives voice to something that we can’t quite express ourselves.

* I’ve heard others comment that, inevitably, we’d need people who were experts in conducting these rituals, and in establishing/managing the rules for these rituals. And, people would fight over the rituals, and their meanings, and the officiants, and so on. Sound familiar. So, if that’s all true, I’m not sure that we’d actually have anything different than we have now.

If I had to guess, this is probably why most Jews that I know respond more powerfully to lifecycle events (births, weddings, etc) than to holidays – the lifecycle rituals are marking a time which is already significant to them, while the holidays are marking a time on a calendar which is only theoretically relevant to them, at best. When a ritual is closely paralleled to an internal reality, it’s bound to be meaningful. When it’s detached from any substantial personal connection, it’s almost bound to be empty, right?

It’s hardly a new insight, but one worth remembering. Religion which speaks to our lives, religion which connects to that which is already precious to us, is much more likely to be relevant, powerful and transformative than religion which comes at us from the outside. Religion should reflect the spirit, not be foreign to it.

But, on occasion, religion might just offer practical advice. So, here it is: if you’re not sure about something, make a decision, then go wash your hands of it – literally. It may not be, classically speaking, a religious insight. But, if you heard it here first, then I’ll happily take credit for it.

No comments: