Cleanliness Is Next To …
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

Editor’s note [9.5.2009, 2:21pm]: a link was removed from the stricken language below and a link to a more in-depth article by Rivkah Slonim explaining the family purification ritual was added. We regret the error.

I find myself fascinated by this story from a few years ago about some Jewish feminists’ renewed interest in the 3,500-year-old tradition of the mikvah. The mikvah is a purification ritual involving immersion in water (a precursor to Christian baptism), and was mandatory for Jewish women at the end of their menstrual cycle. What was once considered an anachronistic and even demeaning ritual, as NPR’s Tovia Smith reports, has been adapted for contemporary life:

"…the mikvah is also being used today as a kind of spiritual therapy, for everything from getting over a miscarriage, to completing a round of chemotherapy, finishing a doctoral degree or breaking up with a boyfriend."

A demonstration of the Muslim tradition of WuduOf course, Judaism doesn’t have a monopoly on cleansing and purification rituals. Islam has the practice of ablution, or ritualized cleansing, in preparation for prayer; and many Hindus gather during the 2,000-year-old Kumbh Mela pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges river and absolve their sins. To list all of the world’s cleansing rituals here would be unwieldy, but they seem to be common throughout many faiths, cultures, and nations.

Within the last few years there has been a bit of scientific research on the psychological relationship between cleanliness and morality, which has revealed what’s been called "The Lady Macbeth Effect" — in reference to the fifth act of Shakespeare’s play, when Lady Macbeth obsessively washes her hands in an attempt to ease her conscience. One study showed a tendency to seek physical cleanliness when thinking guilty thoughts, while another demonstrated how thinking about physical cleanliness can cause one to be less judgmental.

I find this interesting not just in the context of larger spiritual traditions, but also in day-to-day life. For me, sometimes simple pedestrian rituals like taking a shower can serve as a point of transition and reflection. How does cleanliness play a role in your spiritual and moral life?

(image: detail of John Singer Sargent’s Ellen Tarry as Lady Macbeth, via freeparking/Flickr)

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