by Tucker Lieberman
I am a Humanist Jew. I am a Jew by birth, upbringing, education, and community. I believe in rational inquiry and skepticism. I am a person who shies from labels, but nonetheless, I am a Humanist Jew.
Exactly what is it, I have been asked, that draws a humanist to a mikveh?
My theology has always been fluid and fence-sitting. As a philosophy major in college, I privately worked through ideas about why I didn’t identify as either a “theist” or “atheist.” After college, I leaned toward more Jewish religious involvement and traveled to Israel. I wrote an essay in which I referred to the possibility of “hearing the name of G-d” in the vibrations under the waters of the mikveh in Tzfat. The essay was printed by Zeek in 2007 and later reprinted in Balancing on the Mechitza.
Shortly after writing that mikveh essay, my intellectual interests curved, for a while, toward reading nakedly atheist books. This did not entail, however, that I stopped going to the mikveh. Quite the contrary: a friend and I have continued to immerse at Mayyim Hayyim every year. I’m also involved in the Humanist Jewish community at Kahal B’raira in Cambridge.
Some people find this approach to religion confusing. If one doesn’t have traditional or classical beliefs about God and wouldn’t even necessarily feel comfortable stating “There is a God,” why engage in Jewish ritual?
Apart from answers about the importance of community and continuity, I’ve found another answer that rings especially true for me. Ritual can impact me even when I don’t believe “literally” that God is watching. A repeated act such as a yearly immersion is a reminder to me that my rational, argumentative mind can’t find all the answers and isn’t always the best tool. There are other ways of thinking and perceiving that may better illuminate the mystery of life. When I am alone and quiet in a designated sacred space, engaging in an act that is said to be holy, I begin to see things in alternative ways that interrupt my habitual rationalist thinking.
That doesn’t mean that I can force myself to suddenly “believe in God” just by stepping into the water. Rather, it means that I become sensitive to thoughts, questions, interactions, presences, and elements that I might otherwise ignore on an ordinary day. I might ask myself: Having removed my ring to enter the mikveh, why did I return my ring to my other hand when I stepped out of the water? Does a line of poetry or a dream that occurs to me on mikveh day have a special significance? If this day marks a boundary between two phases of life, how would I characterize those phases? In the search for patterns and clues, I observe things that my rational mind would otherwise push aside as “mere coincidences.” I do not believe in a divine being who engineers oddities to fall across my path to get my attention. I do, however, find it an inescapable assumption that, in this enormous world, there is a vast amount of information that I ordinarily dismiss as trivial or irrelevant if I am lucky enough to notice it at all. Somewhere in the mix, there are answers to my existing questions as well as new questions that I have yet to ask. On a great day, ritual wakes me up to that cache of rejuvenation. On a decent day, ritual still forces me to ask myself: What don’t you know yet?
Tucker Lieberman’s articles have been published in many magazines including Shalom Magazine, Jewish Mosaic, JVoices, and Zeek, as well as in several anthologies. He is an active book reviewer on Goodreads.com and an article writer and editor for Helium.com. He studied at Brown University and Boston University and lives in Massachusetts.