Rachel Brodie, Executive Director of Jewish Milestones, shares her thoughts on Yom Kippur, teshuva, and Welcoming Waters: Mikveh for Babies.
I used to find the whole nature-nurture “debate” a big bore. It was so clearly some of both—I’d wager 50-50. Then I became a mother. By the time my kids were toddlers I was beginning to think the ratio was closer to 100:1 in favor of nature and that there was an alarmingly slim margin for grafting and pruning.
It made me wonder about all the other metaphysical molecules that seemed bonded to us, like our DNA, and become part of the raw materials of our being. What does it mean to affect personal transformation? What is unalterable? How much of our core beings can we really change? How much of that is a matter of choice, of free will?
In watching the delightful and much-needed Mayyim Hayyim video of the baby being immersed in a mikveh by her mother (who had also used this ritual to recalibrate her own identity as a Jew), I was struck by the insistence Jewish tradition places on free will and the many ways it affirms the possibility of transformation. Consider what a mikveh can accomplish, what teshuva (repentance, the concept at the core of Yom Kippur) signifies, and the very option of conversion.
What these rituals also have in common is the emphasis on kavanah—intentionality. It’s not immersion in mikveh water or recitation of the Yom Kippur liturgy that makes for transformation, it is the intention of the person participating in these rituals. The success of these rituals is not contingent on having been a blank slate at birth or if a slate can be cleaned through teshuva, but rather on acknowledgment of the infinite power embedded in our belief that we can change and our desire to do so, regardless of whether we are able to make lasting change.
The immersion of baby Clara (infant video star) in a mikveh is as radical an affirmation of nurture as Yom Kippur is of nature. And yet both reflect a tradition that defies dualisms, such as nature/nurture, and instead offers the possibility of existential wholeness that can be undertaken on the basis of good intentions alone. It is with this understanding that I approach Yom Kippur, my children and my relationship to ritual. At least for this year—since I’d like to be open to change.