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The Purpose of Ritual - Jonathan Bergwerk

The simple message of this week’s parashah is that the fertility of the land depends on us keeping God’s commands.  God’s protection is triggered by our conduct.  Verses 10 to 12 explain that the lands of Egypt and Israel work differently.  In Egypt, water comes from regular floods and people can use canals to move water to the fields; their survival is under their own control.  But in Israel, water comes from irregular rain, which in turn is conditional on Israel’s morality.  Moving from Egypt to Israel represented a move to a place where we need to earn our living and our right to survive and thrive; it’s a form of growing up and taking responsibility.

This theme is built upon in verses 13-21; the second paragraph of the Shema.  In the first paragraph, we acknowledge God; in the second we accept the ‘yoke of the mitzvot.’  Judaism needs both paragraphs.  Jews believe in God, do what God asks and in return God will protect us. 

But in the real world, there is no clear connection between morality and good fortune let alone rainfall.  God isn’t keeping His side of the bargain.  For example, in the recent hot weather a Jewish mother and her 8-year-old daughter were walking along the beach.  Suddenly, a gigantic wave surged up, sweeping the little girl out to sea. "Oh, God," lamented the mother, turning her face toward heaven and shaking her fist. "This was my only baby. I can't have more children. She is the love and joy of my life. I have cherished every day that she's been with me. Give her back to me, and I'll go to services every shabbat!"  Another wave surged up and deposited the girl back on the sand. The mother looked up to heaven and said, "She had on a HAT!"

It is of course a core principle of Judaism that God rewards the righteous who observe Torah and punishes those who don’t.  But after the Shoah can we really still believe that?  Good things don’t inevitably follow good deeds and its overly simplistic (and terrible theology) to say that all our suffering is the result of our sins.

The Bible discusses why the righteous suffer.  Sometimes a reason can be seen e.g. Joseph being sold into slavery ultimately enabled him to save his family from starvation.  At other times God lets bad things happen to innocent people; Abel was killed by Cain, Isaac was traumatised by Abraham, Esau was robbed by Jacob etc.  The book of Job concludes that there is just retribution, as God is the God of justice, but mortals cannot understand God’s actions.  In this view we just need to accept whatever happens as being for the ultimate good, even if we often can’t see what that is.  People have used this argument to say that the Shoah led to the creation of Israel, but assuming we can read God’s mind is a very dangerous path to follow.  One solution is to shift getting reward in this world to the next life.  This idea dominates rabbinic literature; people were given a stark choice of ultimate bliss or ruin. 

As usual the 12th century philosopher Moses Maimonides looked at this in a deeper way.  For him, the first paragraph of the Shema should be enough.  The verbs used are in the singular; the words are addressed to us as individuals.  The message is that the command to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might, should be enough to prompt you to act in the correct way, without any thought of reward.  The real reason to do good is for its own sake. 

Yet we can’t all be saints.  So, the second paragraph tries to persuade people to do what is right through the hope of reward and the threat of punishment.  It connects keeping the commandments with society’s well-being – hence the verbs are largely in the plural.  Community-wide obedience leads to a society that is good for us as whole.

In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides argued that believing in direct reward and punishment was for people who have a simple view of life.  In contrast to other Rabbis, he wrote that God does not punish the wicked and reward the virtuous; our lives are mostly governed by randomness and the rules of nature.  Keeping Jewish religious rituals does not cause rain, nor heal the sick; indeed, to believe that human ceremonies or prayers change nature is a pagan belief.  Keeping the mitzvot don’t directly influence God. but work by helping shape the character of the person who fulfils them.  They are a system of actions whose repetition improves our personality. 

According to Maimonides most people who do bad things are not inherently cruel or evil; they lie, cheat and commit adultery because they are weak not bad.  So, the solution is to help people strengthen their wills by improving their character.  That is what the mitzvot are all about; the purpose of keeping kosher is to train our personality and to discipline our desires.  It creates mindfulness around the act of eating, compelling us to actively think about what we eat and why. 

Maimonides argued that people who underwent the training and struggle of keeping kosher were better able to withstand the temptations of lying, stealing and adultery.  He had uncovered the link between effort and satisfaction.  The more I put into something the more I get out of it; if something comes too easy, I get very little satisfaction in return.  With effort I can change and improve myself and by extension the world.  800 years ago, Maimonides wrote a brilliant self-help manual.

In Reform Judaism we can mock ritual.  That’s because we can look at it simplistically.  Back to keeping kosher.  The link between ‘not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk’ and not eating lasagne is tenuous.  Yet delaying gratification is one of the most effective traits of successful people.  I am by no means arguing for keeping all halacha, but I am saying that keeping some rituals which have meaning for you is vital.  Rituals such as lighting candles, praying, giving charity, visiting the lonely, are needed to externalise our ethical beliefs.  Without habitual ritual our Judaism is thin; our core beliefs will decay without the support of regular actions. 

So, my message is think about what rituals have meaning for you and put effort into them - if only because my garden could really do with more rain! 

Jonathan Bergwerk

4 August 2018

Thu, 21 November 2019 23 Cheshvan 5780