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Spiritual Cleansing in Christianity and Judaism

Rev. Jack Abel, Director of Spiritual Care, Caron Pennsylvania

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Christianity and Judaism have strong parallels in their roots, their theological perspectives, and in some of their practices. At the same time, they must be respected as very different. In taking the topic of “Spring Cleaning” to these related traditions, a few quick items do come to mind.

Immersion - The Christian practice of immersion is generally associated with initiation, with becoming a Christian, through Baptism. Not all varieties of Christianity practice immersive baptism, but it is common across many, and even the sprinkling or pouring of water on infants recalls the immersion of Jesus in the Jordan and the baptismal practices of the Christian movement that have followed. For Christians, then, this immersion is profound, an entire transformation, a marked movement into, under, and back out of the water. Tertullian, writing in the fourth century, describes early Christian practices of anointing and immersion as new candidates prepared for their Easter baptisms. Talk about the ultimate Spring Cleaning – for those who follow one of that tradition’s paths!

The Jewish practices of immersion from thousands of years ago shaped the Christian practice, but also have continued and evolved on their own. Today, many Orthodox Jewish persons and some Conservative and other variants use what is called a “mikvah” מִקְוֶה / מקווה or ritual bath. Indeed, these observant Jewish communities place tremendous emphasis on the mikvah as a part of sacred space and Jewish life. Although I am not a person who follows a Jewish path of faith, and therefore run the risk of misstating what these practices really are about, I can say that I have understood from my mentors in this world that one should be careful to understand that the mikvah is about spiritual cleansing, not about hygiene. Though used most often by women, there are also customary bathing practices for men.

One website provides a poetic statement of the Jewish spiritual significance of these practices, “The mikvah personifies both the womb and the grave; the portals to life and afterlife. In both, the person is stripped of all power and prowess. In both there is a mode of total reliance, complete abdication of control. Immersion in the mikvah can be understood as a symbolic act of self-abnegation, the conscious suspension of the self as an autonomous force. In so doing, the immersing Jew signals a desire to achieve oneness with the source of all life, to return to a primeval unity with G‑d. Immersion indicates the abandonment of one form of existence to embrace one infinitely higher. In keeping with this theme, immersion in the mikvah is described not only in terms of purification, revitalization, and rejuvenation but also -- and perhaps primarily -- as rebirth.”

Baptism and the mikvah are immersive and intense in their significance. Both Jews and Christians also have other cleansing practices. There are washing rituals, of feet on Holy Thursday in Christian life (and sometimes on other occasions), and handwashing at Shabbas in Judaism. Spiritual practices like Confession and the movement through the High Holy Days of Judaism can also be thought of as cathartic – cleansing in a deeply meaningful way without soap or water.

It seems important to stress, though, after these paragraphs that spiritual cleansing is part of good practice, but that the soul of recovery is healing. In cleansing ourselves of our shame and guilt, our impurities and defects of character, we are moved into a new way of being, one that is more congruent with who we are meant to be. Our faith illuminates and runs parallel with this; we are cleansed and become whole.