A little while back, I was invited to guest post on DovBear. I wrote about how Orthodox Judaism has emphasized the ritual and symbolic value of its practices at the expense of the concrete and pragmatic values of those practices. One example I used was Netila Yadayim, ritual hand-washing. Netilat Yadayim has significance connected to ritual purity, but it is also undeniably part of a rich Jewish tradition of cleanliness. In my own personal practice I’ve sought to reclaim the practical value of cleaning my hands prior to eating, and also raising that value to the level of religious virtue by washing my hands with soap and water, and then rinsing with a traditional pitcher of water poured ritualistically over my hands.
Introspective Hareidi, a commenter helped, albeit unwittingly, illustrate my point. He noted that my practic,e of Netilat Yadayim might well lead me to saying an invalid blessing (bracha l’vatalah) because if there was still soap on my hands when I rinsed them, that soap would act as a block (chatzitza) between my hands and the water, thus invalidating my hand-washing and turning my blessing into an act of taking God’s name in vain. I’ll admit to having a pretty good laugh when I read the comment. How absurd! This guy was worried about the soap, but evidently, he had no concern about the dirt that the soap was washing away!
According to the halacha, Netilat Yadayim must be performed with hands that are already clean, precisely because dirt on the hands will block the water and invalidate the ritual efficacy of the hand-washing. But if you position yourself to observe people doing Netilat Yadayim, almost none of them pre-wash with soap. Culture trumps law, as usual.
I bring all this up because my engagement with Netilat Yadayim has been a really fascinating journey. I grew up with Netilat Yadayim being part of the Shabbat. I knew that it was something you were supposed to do at every meal with bread, but practically, it was a Shabbat thing. Having chosen to take it on as an adult for both its ritual and practical sides, I finally found myself meaningfully engaged in religion in a way that has been absent from my life for a long time.
The reason behind my new commitment to Netilat Yadayim was precisely because it was both ritual and purposeful. But in order for it to be purposeful, it needed to include soap. And that meant that the whole shape of the ritual was up for grabs. For a while I experimented with different approaches, before finally settling on a practice. Along the way, I puzzled over why we recite the blessing for Netilat Yadayim after we perform the act, and also tried on for size eliminating the entire ritual rinse in favor of just a good old-fashioned washing your hands with soap. This exploration alone was a tremendously rich experience.
The richest part of the experience, however, was not around the specifics of the practice. It was about the commitment to the practice. Sometimes I would forget to wash my hands, and remember only in mid-meal. Even though my hands were basically clean, I felt a pull to wash them, a pull I largely honored. Other times, I would be about to start a meal shortly after washing my hands for some other purpose, like if I had recently been to the restroom. My hands were clean, so did I need to wash them again? I didn’t really think so, but I often did, simply to retain the habit. In the few weeks since I adopted the practice, I felt like I was going through thousands of years of Jewish ritual evolution aimed at meeting my commitment both to ritual and to the practical value of having clean hands.
I’m certain that most Orthodox Jews reading this will shake their heads, perhaps in amusement, and perhaps in disdain. I don’t begrudge them those reactions. I just wish that on some level, they will also nod their heads in recognition. The struggle around religious practice is dignified by human initiative. My choices felt meaningful, powerful, and sometimes, when everything balanced out just right, they even felt holy. That’s an experience that I’ve rarely felt in the Orthodox world, and I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that absence.