Monday, March 31, 2008

Losing Touch with Touching

The Jewish Week 11/24/2006

During the recent election campaign, the New York Times reported that politicians now routinely cleanse their hands with Purell after each episode of pressing the flesh with their supporters. Purell, the hand-sanitizing gel that claims to kill 99.9 percent of the most common germs, seems to be popping up everywhere. It is now dispensed outside every patient’s door at my local hospital and I find myself constantly loading up on it as I stroll from room to room, swiftly rubbing my hands so the stuff will dry before I reach out to touch the next person in
need.

When the Israeli novelist David Grossman first visited America, he commented, “Americans are very polite, but trying to relate to them is like kissing through glass.”

It’s impossible to be a caring pastor without occasionally holding or shaking a hand, but more and more we are being asked to do our jobs with sterile gloves and masks. We’ve become so microbially beset that we’ve lost touch with touching.

I can see where this is heading. The Torah procession of the not-so-distant-future will feature the bar mitzvah student carrying the sacred scroll, followed by the glad-handing rabbi, cantor, and proud parents, then maybe a sexton, a synagogue officer or two, and finally, bringing up the rear, a member of the ritual committee dispensing gobs of Purell to the crowd.

Our society has become so obsessed with the violation of personal space that we’ve actually found an area where the doctors and lawyers agree. The medical profession is fixated on hygiene and the lawyers are loco about liability. Everyone is saying, “Hands off.” Because, sadly, a pastor’s caring touch has all-too-often evolved into something more illicit, now even when that contact is totally well intentioned (as is the case 99.9 percent of the time), in this climate of pastoral paranoia, it is often perceived otherwise.

At one time, the laws of ritual purity were more important than just about any other aspect of Jewish practice. An entire order of the Mishna “Taharot,” is dedicated to them, focusing on impure vessels and food and the spiritual contamination caused by bodily discharges, corpses and disease. One of the order’s 12 tractates is called “Yadayim,” or hands. But of these 12 tractates, only one was considered relevant enough to warrant discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, the tractate “Niddah,” which discusses a woman’s menstrual cycle. Most Mishnaic purity laws were rendered obsolete by the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE; we recall them now with such acts as the ritual washing of hands before a meal.

The Psalmist equated clean hands and a pure heart (Psalm 24:4), and Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair was the first to liken cleanliness with Godliness (Sotah, chapter 9, Mishna 15). Did you know that God’s ineffable name begins with the same letter – Yod – whose very name means “hand?” If you look at the most ancient proto-Semitic alphabet, the Yod looks just like a bent arm, complete with fingers. There is something very Godly about our hands – and there is no more sacred gesture than the human touch.

It is never easy to explain the laws of purity to modern Jews. Using the analogy of “cooties” makes it all seem so childish and shallow; these laws put us in touch with the deepest mysteries of life by constantly returning us to primal moments of passage, of birthing and dying. The ritual bath is enjoying a renaissance among even non-traditional Jews who are being awakened to that powerful experience of spiritual renewal. With each seepage of potential life (aptly called by Rabbi Susan Grossman a “life-leak”), woman and men are encouraged to replenish their pursuit of a life-affirming sexuality through the act of immersion. Even the most secular person – basically, anyone who has ever taken a hot shower after stumbling out of bed – can sense the restorative powers of flowing waters.

And even the most assimilated family knows to place water on the doorstep when returning from the cemetery. Pouring water over our hands helps us to forge a passage, a birth canal, back from the abode of death to the realm of the living. Then, once we enter the house of mourning, we immediately perform another life-affirming act: we eat.

We can appreciate our ancestors’ obsession with purity because it mirrors our own. This generation might be the most germaphobic in history. Before Purell, there was Listerine, which in the 1920s practically invented the American aversion to bad breath. In fact, the pseudo-medical term “halitosis” was created in 1921 as part of a marketing campaign. Pfizer, the company that brings us Listerine and acquired Purell in 2004 clearly understands the trend. Listerine sales have increased by double digits over the past couple of years. Lots of new anti-germ products are flooding the market, including a portable subway strap to avoid contact with the metal one, an around-the-neck-air purifier and “antiviral” Kleenex, designed to kill cold and flu virus on contact.

In fearful times like ours, when the most dreaded enemies are unseen, we naturally tend to shy away from contact with the unknown — or, for that matter, the known, since even our most intimate friends are inundated with millions of invisible enemies. Everyone — and everything — is tainted. I’ve even seen Hebrew-school kids scouring the yarmulke bin for head lice. The purity laws are Judaism’s way of acknowledging that fear of the invisible and channeling it into life-affirming action.

So now, what do we do in a Torah procession when people are afraid to shake? Maybe a Purell dispenser on the pulpit is the answer. But at the same time I will hope to remind people that each extended hand is guaranteed to be at least 99.9 percent pure: because embedded within it is the first letter of the name of God.

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