Joseph Reimer is the Director of the Institute for Informal Jewish Education and an Associate Professor and former Director of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University. He will co-facilitate a panel on mikveh education next week at our Gathering the Waters Conference – we hope to see you there!
As we grow older how cluttered our minds become. Like the attic of an old house, one’s mind can become a dumping ground where the worn-out beliefs, prejudices and feelings of the past accumulate. Some of that clutter we ourselves have contributed and some we inherited from our parents, families and friends. If we are not aware of this tendency, we may find little room left for fresh thinking, feeling and life experiences.
In this regard I have had a few wake-up calls in recent years. Following a well-tread pattern in my family, I developed heart disease in my 50’s. After a procedure to deal with blockage of an artery, I was talking with my sister Susan about how it felt to have this medical heritage from our father and his father before. Susan stopped me to ask: “Are you assuming that the course of your disease will follow theirs and result in an early death?” That was a powerful question. I had to search the hidden assumptions stored in my mind and ask myself if that belief was stored there. My eventual answer was that while that assumption was clearly stored up there, I am trying to modify that belief and replace it with a new possibility that with careful monitoring and exercise, I can live a different life pattern even given the same underlying medical condition.
Here is a Jewish example. Two years ago my daughter Ziva moved to Brookline and invited me to join her at a minyan she was beginning to attend. My first reaction was, “That minyan has separate seating and I do not like that arrangement.” Luckily, Ziva persisted and I did join her and liked what I saw. Eventually, to my surprise, I actually grew to like the separate seating given an otherwise full commitment to gender equality. In this case, I knew what was stored in my mind. I had grown up in an Orthodox shul and grew to distance myself from the mechitza and all that represented. I did not want to return to that past. What I did not realize, though Ziva had suggested it, was that I was conflating the present –the current minyan in Brookline- with my past experience and not seeing the subtle, but important differences between the two.
I cite these two examples to make a point about adult learning in general and adult Jewish learning in particular. Adults often do not come to new situations with a fully open mind. Often we bring all that clutter that rumbles around the attic of our mind. Sometimes, hidden in that attic and out of awareness, are attitudes, assumptions, beliefs and feelings that we acquired long ago and that may be shaping our current perceptions. When my sister asked that question, I truly did not know what to respond. I sat with her question and mentally rummaged through the attic of my mind until I found some strong evidence that the assumption that my life would follow the pattern of my father and grandfather was indeed hidden there and potent. I could then ask myself: Why would you live with that assumption? Can you honor the wish to identify with your fathers and still direct your thoughts and feelings in an alternative direction? Given that I am fortunate to live at a time where there have been such impressive advances in the treatment of heart disease, this change of assumption seemed possible to accomplish. Indeed, my change in assumption has brought me great relief and even inspiration.
The Jewish example is even more pressing. Many of us grew up with Jewish experiences that we did not cherish. We do not wish to put ourselves back in a box that felt like a prison and so we resist those experiences. Yet in our strong resistance, we may be missing the subtle, but significant ways in which Jewish living has changed over several decades. There are synagogues that are not like your parent’s synagogue. There are rabbis who do not walk off the pages of a Philip Roth fiction. There are federations that have turned a new page. And there are many new organizations that have brought fresh perspectives to Jewish life that seemed nearly impossible 30 and 40 years ago.
I wish to note this in advance of attending the conference next week about the contemporary mikveh. My two experiences as a young man with mikveh were terrifically off-putting. I was never going back. Then along came Mayyim Hayyim and changed my thinking. Still, I wonder, what old assumptions about mikveh are stored in the attic of my mind? How might they limit my receptiveness to new approaches?
Mikveh is both an old and a new experience. I am outwardly excited about the new possibilities. Still I need to be aware that the old assumptions lurk. When someone suggests a new idea that I may find strange or off-putting, I will be asking myself: Is this my fresh mind reacting or my old assumptions closing me off to the new? While many new ideas do not prove worthy, they surely deserve our best current consideration. I hope we can enter this new arena with our minds facing forward and not rummaging in the clutter of past assumptions.