What’s the Point of Ritual?

February 25, 2014

TorahRitualmod

I teach Introduction to Judaism classes for adults who want a basic education in Judaism.

One of the temptations in planning such a class is to focus primarily on the “how to” aspects: how to keep Shabbat and holidays, how to hang a mezuzah, how to have a proper Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah, how to keep up in the service. Certainly it is important for people to feel comfortable and competent in doing those things, but if that’s all I teach, I’ve not done enough.

Before we perform a mitzvah, usually there’s a blessing, one that starts out:

Blessed are You, [The name of God] our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who sanctifies us with mitzvot…

And then we specify the mitzvah we are about to do. Often the words of the formula fly by as we focus on the mitzvah we are about to do, but there’s something important in there: the point, in fact. The point of mitzvot, the point of reading the scroll of Esther or sitting at the seder table or studying Torah is to sanctify us and to remind us of our role in this world. 

Some mitzvot are incomprehensible (Why avoid mixing linen and wool? Why wave the lulav?) but even the most mysterious of commandments encourage me to be aware of the world, to pay attention. They push me to stop and see, to wake up and notice. Combine them with Jewish study (another mitzvah!) and they direct that wakened awareness to the pursuit of Jewish virtues: towards lovingkindness, hospitality, humility, compassion, and justice.

If all I do is a bunch of quaint rituals, I’ve missed the point. The prophet Isaiah tells us that sacrifices and ritual are not enough by themselves to sanctify us in the first chapter of Isaiah:

“Why are all those sacrifices offered to me?” asks God. “I’m fed up with burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals! I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats! Yes, you come to appear in my presence; but who asked you to do this, to trample through my courtyards? Stop bringing worthless grain offerings! They are like disgusting incense to me! Rosh-Hodesh, Shabbat, calling convocations — I can’t stand evil together with your assemblies! (Isaiah 1:11-14)

Isaiah then reminds us that true holiness lies not in picturesque ritual, but in hands and heads that alleviate suffering, act justly and spread goodness in the world:

Get your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing evil, learn to do good! Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend orphans, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

We are entering the spring season of ceremony: Purim, then Passover, then Shavuot. We are approaching an annual opportunity for transformation. If we enter this time with an open heart and mind, then we can indeed be “sanctified by mitzvot” and become the hands of goodness in this world, seeking justice, defending the defenseless, finding hope for the destitute.

Whether we are beginners, in our first “Intro” class, or old hands at the Jewish holidays, let’s open our hearts and our minds to the meaning of these festivals, and transform: first ourselves, and then the world.

Image: LicenseAttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by rbarenblat


Remembering Kennedy

November 22, 2013

Serious Steps

It’s 50 years today since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked us all. Like everyone else alive that day, I remember it and the following days in Technicolor.

I started to write a different post today, but in researching a detail, I learned about a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Chairman Nikita Kruschchev, written during her last night in the White House, after the assassination:

So now, in one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper at the White House, I would like to write you my message.

I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches-”In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.”

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. You respected each other and could deal with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relationship with you…

The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones.

While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.

In those days, the big worry was nuclear war: that “WWIII” would start, and we’d nuke ourselves to death. That never happened, but the underlying problem – the problem of people using violence when words would better serve – is with us still. What strikes me in Mrs. Kennedy’s letter is the notion of “big men” knowing the need for self-control, and “little men” being driven by fear and pride. The “big men” she wrote about were on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain but they managed to keep us out of a hot war. The “little men,” then as now (and believe me, they come in both genders, then and now) like to talk about what the other side “deserves” and don’t stop to think what the world will look like the day after their wishes come true.

Jewish tradition calls upon us all to be “big,” to see beyond our passions and our fear. In this age of the Internet, each of us has power beyond imagining to influence the opinions and actions of others. The power of words, always huge, has gone nuclear. So let us watch our metaphors, let us mind our casual rhetoric that runs to hyperbole: so-and-so’s a Nazi, so-and-so “doesn’t deserve to live.” In a country where every disturbed person has access to a gun, let’s stop spreading rumors that we are pretty sure are as good as true.

My parents disagreed mightily with almost everything President Kennedy did or stood for, but they never once suggested that his death was a good thing.  When I read what some people publish today in public places about anyone they see as a threat to themselves, I tremble. Violent rhetoric may be legal, but it is still violence, and it is too easily translated into violent action by someone too simple or mentally unstable to understand that it was “only rhetoric.”

Instead of running off at the keyboard, let’s all work, soberly, consciously, for a day when every person, large and small

… shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)


On Being Good: “Is this the fast I have chosen?”

July 1, 2013
mmmm doughnut ...

(Photo credit: bunchofpants)

“I am not going to eat that doughnut; I’m going to be good.”

If you are an American, you’ve heard it. If you are an American woman, you’ve heard it a lot. But when was the last time you heard yourself or someone else say it about something that actually had moral value?

“I’m to obey every traffic law today. I’m going to be good.”

“I’m going to lobby against my own financial interests in favor of the interests of the poor. I’m going to be good.”

“I’m going to speak kindly to every person I meet for the next hour. I’m going to be good.”

… or even in reference to food:

“I’m not going to buy or eat chocolate that might have been produced by enslaved children. I’m going to be good.”

“I’m not going to buy or eat food that causes human or animal suffering. I’m going to be good.”

In Isaiah 58, God says to Israel:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

What kind of a world could we build if we put the energy into actual good deeds that we put into dieting and diet talk?

This post was inspired by: 


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