“How do you do community?” Asked a sister to me recently; she’d been burned by more than one ‘community’ when she didn’t live up to their local standard of holiness.
She asked me because for the last year or so, I’ve been preaching community and kingdom and nationhood to every follower of Messiah who will listen, because we don’t get it!
The above statement originally contained an expletive because I frankly felt it called for it, and I dialed it back for my reading audience, but make no mistake that that is what I meant. All the talk of ‘community’ churches, and being ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’ and how we have ‘our’ Father in Heaven, but most self-proclaimed followers are still too busy with being Americans, Liberals, Republicans, Baptists, seeker-friendly, and a thousand other made up, market friendly, human-label garbage to actually live like there really is one body, one faith, one Father of all! What have most us changed in our actual day-to-day life that says my fellow disciple is closer to me than my co-worker?
Anyway. She asked me. And a little later, I sat down to write a blog on how to do it. And I quickly remembered why I don’t believe in one, two, five, ten, or any-number-of-step-programs. We’re locked into this mechanical way of thinking, where if I do (A) then I can do (B) and suddenly, despite free-will and a universe of things beyond my control, (C) will be the result. Oh, golly gee!
The fact is there is no road map to community. Effective, living, actual community.
But I believe there is a road. A meandering path, that you can see under your feet and again where it comes up the hill on the other side of the dark forest, but the middle is kind of sketchy. But if you stay on that path it will get you there. It’s the belief that YHVH didn’t give us a calling and then deny us the power to achieve it. The paradoxical belief that yes, we need the return of Mashiach to bring in the fullness of the Kingdom, but also realize we are being conformed into the image of the Mashiach every day by the Ruach HaKodesh–which means Mashiach is here! Do not deny the power of godliness.
So on this sketchy path, I present to you a turn called: Mikveh.
Mikveh is a ritual immersion practiced by Jews, as part of family purity taught in the Torah. It is primarily seen as a ritual of spiritual breaking from something previous, but it is also hygienic. A common example being that YHVH teaches us to abstain from sexual relations during the seven days of a woman’s period (Lev 15), and at the end for her to wash herself. Now the Torah rarely uses the actual word Mikveh, but it does use the term in Vayikra/Leviticus 11:36 to describe a gathering of water large enough that it is not rendered unclean (as smaller sources are) by having a dead mouse in it. Perhaps, this is where the tradition comes from because how could unclean or possibly unclean water be part of purifying someone from uncleanness? So a mikveh would be a source of water that was known to be clean.
How big is a mikveh? Traditionally it is a body of water 200 gallons, minimum. Tradition also stipulates that it be living water, which has to do with being fed from nature, naturally. Ie., gravity fed. This makes sense because the first mikveh in scripture is actually the sea (B’resheet/Genesis 1:10). Later it is used also of ponds in Egypt. Both of which are obviously rain and river, gravity fed, and probably more than 200 gallons.
I don’t want to get lost on the details. Even if the traditional definition of Mikveh is not itself the mitzvah, the idea of washing is abundantly so. One should wash after touching a dead body, after having sex, after an abnormal bodily discharge, etc. Paul Copan made a very interesting observation that all uncleanness seemed to stem from a connection with death. Semen for example, once discharged dies. Blood when it has left the body during menstration surrounds the death of an egg. Dead bodies are obviously, dead. So all uncleanness has to do with a nearness of death. Kedushah (separateness) around the idea of things dead or dying reflects the fact that we worship the source of life, unlike the world which worships death.
But what does this have to do with community?
Imagine for a moment, that you are Isra’el (which you are if you claim Yeshua as your Master). And you’ve just come out of Egypt. Tell me . . . Where are the bathrooms? Did Isra’el, with more than a million people, stop at truck stops along the wilderness to bathe? Whatever you think of mikveh as a mitzvah, clearly it would have been the only option. They could not shower, and they certainly didn’t drag a million bathtubs. Clearly, the natural ponds, rivers, seashore were their mikvehs. Now do you suppose, that they had shifts? That the erected tents? Even if they did, they were certainly not individual. Even the idea of gender segregation seems highly unlikely.
The nearly inevitable conclusion is that Torah keeping Isra’el, would have had plenty of seeing each other in their all-togethers. Public bathing would have been a fact of life. As I read scripture, in fact, Aharon and his sons would have bathed semi-publically in the laver between the altar and the tabernacle (Shemot/Exodus 40:12) before they put on their kadosh garments. And this didn’t end there, because Judaism has practiced to this day that the mikveh immersion is practiced both in the nude and with an attendant to declare the immersion kosher (complete submergence). Understanding this, adds an interesting insight into what baptism is supposed to be:
- In the mikveh understanding being nude, nothing comes through the mikveh: in modern baptism (because originally there was no difference), a person comes through in the clothes from their old life.
- If a particular immersion is a symbol of death, then in the mikveh we see a person putting themselves to death, like their Mashiach who died willingly, “no man takes my life from me. I lay it down, and I will take it up again.” In baptism, it is an act carried out by another.
But still, what does this have to do with community?
In the traditional mikveh, with an attendant as Yochanon was (notice that no one was surprised at some guy in the desert inviting people to get in the buff and immerse in water?), then we see that mikveh is not an individual act. Could someone mikveh in private? Sure, but the example of Yeshua himself is mikveh with someone else present. Further back to the origin we have Aharon being washed by his brother Moshe. We have the whole people of Israel mikvehing together for 40 years in the wilderness, and coming out of Egypt through a mikveh of the Red Sea.
Mikveh is community oriented. Now, I’m going to speculate a little bit on the why. After all—aside from being impractical—couldn’t YHVH have said, everyone get a bucket and a towel and take care of this in private?
- Community mikveh promotes interest in each other’s lives. Suppose someone is sick and trying to hide it? An attendant would be able to see some signs of illness. If it was contagious, they might report it to someone like the elders to prevent the spread. Or suppose there was someone in the congregation—YHVH forbid—who was being abused by a spouse or even parent? It would be hard to hide if mikveh’s were at least once a month for a woman (and more often if someone was sexually active). It could even suggest marital trouble, because how is it that this married woman is not coming to mikveh?
- Community mikveh promotes brotherhood. When we all walk around in our clothes, some of us dress better (and more expensive) than others. It’s not hard to see that someone who dresses in a suit looks more respectable, and—if we’re honest—what that means is they look like a better person. Perhaps, even worth more. But a mikveh reminds us, this person still gets dirty like us. They still feel the pull of death (uncleanness). And honestly, under their clothes they look just like us.
- Community mikveh promotes compassion. Many of us joke about how ‘nobody wants to see this’ speaking of ourselves. We suggest that deep down we think our bodies are unworthy. Clothing lets us hide the fact that we think God somehow made something ugly when he made us. Instead of something fearful and wonderful. Someone or some group serving as attendants/witnesses, then has the blessing of telling another person they are ‘kosher, kosher, kosher’. It gives us an opportunity to tell each other that we are at our core beautiful and wonderful.
Together, and the last one especially, all point to a practice of saying, one to another that we are in this together. Will this magically solve community problems? As I said from the beginning, no! Is it still possible to reject someone who you’ve ritually bathed with? Sure. And just because we’ve done this, should we then turn a blind eye to sin in the community? No, the book of Acts is clear that there are at least four things for which we should break all fellowship (blood or violence, things strangled, fornication, and idolatry). But if we’re rejecting for other things, possible the sin isn’t with the rejected but the rejector.
But what this does is practice or rehearse thinking like we’re a community. What made me think of this connection, was when I asked myself why do congregations of people who want to obey Elohim, and take his word and even his Torah seriously, fall apart as communities? And I think it’s because we never learn to like each other. And why not? Because the people who are most concerned with holiness are also the people most likely to find fault with you. Which means to be part of their ‘community’ you are tempted to put on a face. And that means pretending to be something you’re not and never really relaxing with them. And how much you want to bet the person across from you is doing the same? Trying not to be the first to show their struggle. So we have a group of people who want to be a community without ever actually getting to know real people. We pretend that we’re not entertained by some things like TV because they might think we’re godless. We never talk about hobbies unless we can slip a scripture in, because that’s what they’ll expect.
The bottom line is that we never feel comfortable enough to let someone else see us in our pajamas. Let alone our underwear. Let alone without even that.
Is it a coincidence that I’ve never found even one of these communities with a practice of mikveh? Is it a coincidence that the word Mikveh is translated as “coming together”, but also contains the meaning of something hoped for?
Meanwhile, the Jews who practice mikveh (albeit much less public), are adamantly adhered to each other as a people. However much they may dislike and argue with one another, they have an almost universal belief that they all remain Jews (unless a Jew ‘converts’ to Christianity).
It seems undeniably obvious that the group that is willing to see the real you (naked in Hebrew has the pictograph of seeing the real you), will hold community much better than the group that pretends they are something they are not. Mikveh is the practice of familiarity with each other as we really are, and I think perhaps that’s what’s missing from modern attempts at community. We come together and we think we can be together because we share the same rules (I say that crudely since Torah is about love, not rules). But YHVH didn’t give Torah to a bunch of scattered individuals and say ‘get together.’ He gave Torah to a people. We have to cultivate our sense of each other as a family and a people, and I think mikvehs may help.
[Pardon the formatting. I was running behind and Word inserted some formatting changes.]