Ritual focus risks losing the big picture

The JC Essay

By Dina Brawer, February 22, 2013

A couple of years ago I was having dinner with one of my closest friends, who has since passed away. She was not, strictly speaking, ritually observant although she was an extraordinarily charitable person and deeply concerned with the welfare of others. It was the last serious conversation we had - which might be why it remains etched in my mind. She referred to the fact that, unlike me, she was not religious.

I disagreed. I said that in certain respects I considered her to be more religious than myself. Religiosity, I explained, consists of two equally important relationships: Man-God and Man-Man. Granted, she neglected her Man-God relationship as defined by ritual observance, but she was deeply committed to that other important relationship. Who are we to decide which of the two merits the designation 'religious'?

Yet most of us are guilty of this bias. Try the following thought experiment. Your neighbour is in tears. Her son went off to Yeshiva in Israel for his gap year and now, she claims, he has returned 'crazy frum'. What does that term conjure up in your mind?

Most people would say it conjures up images of a young man who has become so religious that he will no longer eat in his parent's home, embrace female relatives, enjoy a night out at the cinema or even read secular books. Few would say it conjures up images of a young man who is so religious as to eschew pirate DVDs, refrain from purchasing products that make use of child labour or eat food that is sourced in an unethical way.

There are a number of reasons why this may be so.

Is it any surprise that many Yeshiva graduates focus on ritual and forget about being a mensch?

First, it is about metrics. It is easier to measure outward behaviours than to assess inner convictions. Take for example the CRP test used by Jewish Schools to determine admissions. Families are assessed primarily on synagogue attendance, which can easily be measured. Some of the more Haredi schools will assess families based on criteria such as commitment to regular Torah study, strict Shabbat observance, women's hair covering and the absence of television or internet in the home. All are easily identifiable outward behaviours. This excludes questions that might probe more elusive values and convictions such as integrity in the workplace, authenticity, social responsibility and respect for all human beings. One can identify at first glance someone who wears a head covering or is shomer Shabbat but not the individual who resisted the temptation to make a quick but unethical buck or treats an outsider with respect.

Secondly, we find ourselves being able to observe mitzvoth to an unprecedented high standard. For example, today's kosher kitchen is nothing like that of previous generations. Not only do we have separate dishes for meat, milk and another two sets of each for Passover. We have separate sinks, dishwashers and some may even have separate kitchens for Passover. Our grandmothers in the shtetel made do with far less. On Sukkot, an entire community would have shared a single etrog given the sheer expense of obtaining such an exotic fruit, whereas today any teenager can afford their own. Advances in technology have led to improved quality Tefillin, raising the standards of what is considered acceptable.

Our socioeconomics have led to inflation in the quality of religious observance. We no longer question whether something is kosher but rather how kosher it is.

Thirdly, we display an increasing tendency to focus on the detail at the expense of the big picture. The psychiatrist, neurologist and philosopher Ian McGilcrist argues that this is an effect of our 'divided brain' and the increasing dominance of the 'left hemisphere' that is detail-centric over the 'the right hemisphere' that has a more holistic outlook. This results in a greater concern for the 'How' over the 'Why'. This is evident in all aspects of life and Jewish observance is no exception.

The combination of metric driven criteria, socio-economics and left-brain mentality has led to a bias towards mitzvot with a Man-God or ritual component. Is this obsession with the detail of ritual observance at the expense of social based mitzvot a true reflection of authentic Judaism?

The biblical prophets would not agree. A cursory reading of the prophets reveals a Judaism with a deep concern for social responsibility, interpersonal ethics and morals. Isaiah (1:11-17) railed against the offering of sacrifices when unaccompanied by social justice: "What need have I of all your sacrifices [....] that you come to appear before Me, who asked that of you? Trample My courts no more. When you lift up your hands, I will turn my eyes away from you, though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves clean, put evil doings away from my sight, cease to do evil. Devote yourselves to justice, aid the wrong, uphold the rights of the orphans, defend the cause of the widow."

Isaiah (58:3-8) also had strong views about religious fasting that did not induce a change in one's behaviour: "On the day of your fasting you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high [...] Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loosen the chains of injustice [...]and set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and 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?"

H ad Isaiah lived today he might have addressed the hypocrisy of those who pray fervently on the Sabbath while on their way home from synagogue sowing communal discord. Or those who question the kosher provenance of the food in their mouths without giving so a thought to the gossip that comes out.

Isaiah's contemporary Micah is similarly concerned about social issues: "You have devoured my people's flesh; you have flayed the skin off them, and their flesh off their bones. And after tearing their skins off them, and breaking their bones to bits, you have cut it up as into a pot, like meat in a cauldron. Someday they shall cry out to the Lord, but He will not answer them; at that time He will hide His face from them, in accordance with the wrongs they have done."

While Isaiah and Micah (as well as others) decry the false piousness of the individuals fasting or offering sacrifices, they are not saying that the rituals in questions are not important. Rather, they seek to redress the balance between the pietistic practice aimed at God and the social justice that benefits fellow men.

Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), described as a modern-day prophet, took a keen interest in the burning social issues of his day, such as the Vietnam War and the American Civil Right movement. He vehemently opposed the former and marched with Martin Luther King in support of the latter. He was driven by a deep sense of religious commitment. He later described marching through Selma, Alabama in support of Civil Rights as akin to praying with his feet.

Heschel was well aware of the tension between the detail-prone observance demanded by halacha and the lofty moral aspirations invoked by the prophets. He describes Jewish life as one of polarity in which opposite poles must be held in creative tension: "Jewish thinking and living can only be adequately understood in terms of a dialectic pattern, containing opposite or contrasted properties. As in a magnet, the ends of which have opposite magnetic qualities, these terms are opposite to one another and exemplify a polarity which lies at the very heart of Judaism."

The trouble with Heschel and the prophets is that they are simply not studied widely enough. Your average teenager returning from Yeshiva will have (hopefully) absorbed a good grounding in the mechanics of a Talmudic sugya (passage) and considerable detail of Jewish ritual law. The prophets, however, get short shrift. Even where their study does form part of the curriculum its place in the traditional Yeshiva is at best marginal.

The result is an unbalanced Jewish education strongly biasing one pole while neglecting the other. Is it any surprise that many Yeshiva or seminary graduates focus on the detail of ritual obedience at the expense of the bigger picture - namely how to be a mensch?

The problem is not only marginalisation of an important corpus of Torah but also a superficial understanding of the nature of halacha and mitzvot. The contemporary rabbi and philosopher Dr Nathan Lopez Cardozo explores this problem in a series of penetrating articles in which he argues that we have expelled God from our halachic practice. He decries what he sees as a lack of 'God-Consciousness' amongst many observant Jews, who are obsessed with ritual observance without experiencing the awesome presence of God. This is one of the reasons that some self-styled religious people can behave appallingly to others. The same God who commands adherence to the laws of Kosher forbids us to lie, cheat and gossip. When God is at the centre of one's Judaism it is easier to hold its inherent polarities in creative tension. When God is expelled from ritual and it is enacted for its own sake it becomes another form of idolatry.

Perfect balance is almost impossible to achieve. But we can go some way to redressing the current bias prevalent in Orthodox Judaism. Not by diminishing the importance of and commitment to the halacha and ritual but rather by bringing into sharper focus the social dimension of Judaism through an awareness that God is present in both.

We should be more accepting of other Jews whose early steps towards Jewish commitment are primarily Man-Man, while at the same time being a little more critical of our own confinement to the Man-God pole. Both are valid starting points. But we need to keep moving step by step towards greater balance and equilibrium.

In reclaiming the Man-Man dimension of Judaism as a valid religious experience we will inevitably open more access points to more Jews who seek a relationship with God and the Jewish people. At a time when our numbers are steadily decreasing this can only be a good thing.

Dina Brawer is a Jewish educator and the UK ambassador for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance

Last updated: 10:45am, February 22 2013