Ritual is the DNA that defines who we are

A cultural Judaism stripped of religious practice is no recipe for survival

By Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, March 10, 2014
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Rituals like havdalah, marking the passage of Shabbat, enable us to pass on our values from one generation to anotherRituals like havdalah, marking the passage of Shabbat, enable us to pass on our values from one generation to another

The language of Judaism is ritual and, as quintessential moderns, we Jews have lost our appreciation for its expressive power. For one thing, we’re not very good at it and like normal adults we don’t like doing what we don’t do well.

Is there anything more nerve-wracking than having to recite alone the Aramaic mourner’s Kaddish in a synagogue service when we can barely read Hebrew? When speaking a foreign language poorly, we’re painfully self-conscious. Then as moderns, we value our individual autonomy above all else and bristle at the thought of having to fall in line. All too often, the piano lessons our parents subjected us to as youngsters failed to instil us with an appreciation for the instrument or music.

And yet without its ancient, salient and resonant language, Judaism falls mute. Its functions are as varied as our needs. Ritual can unite parents and children, bind members of a community and bring citizens of a country together.

Jewish ritual imbues us with a reverence for nature, making us better stewards of God’s creation. It is an inexhaustible source of sanctity. To kindle Shabbat candles Friday evening alters our home into a sacred space and to bless our children with the priestly blessing before kiddush is to tell them how much they mean to us.

To fast on Yom Kippur helps create the contraction conducive to self-reflection and contrition, a demanding effort with a modest ask: just one more year to do better. If Yom Kippur is for the pintele yid (“the Jewish spark within”) then the fast of Tishah b’Av takes up the fate of the nation, reminding us of the all too many dark days that have bloodied our history. Remarkably, the staves by which the ark with its stone tablets was carried in the wilderness were never to be removed once placed in the Tabernacle, a symbolic acknowledgement that impermanence is part of human existence.

Nothing is more illustrative of the tenacious grasp of ritual than the anguish-filled saga of the tens of thousands of New Christians created by the Catholic monarchies of Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries through forced conversions. Over generations many of them were secretly and at great risk able to preserve shards of memory through fragments of ritual observance.

Thus when Samuel Schwarz in 1917 tracked down an enclave of crypto-Jews in the mountains of northern Portugal, he identified himself to them by reciting the opening line of Shema Yisrael, at which the aged matriarch and preserver of group memory instinctively covered her eyes. The long-term fear of detection by the Inquisition had not crushed every single capillary of Jewish consciousness.

To my mind, the most worrisome statistic in the Pew Foundation Study of American Jewry and the recent Institute for Jewish Policy Research report on British Jewry is the more than 20 per cent (22 per cent for Pew and 24 per cent for JPR) whose Jewish identity is wholly secular, a percentage that rises steadily with each younger age cohort.

Despite the degrees of separation, some may still be valuable social capital for the Jewish people. But will their children be? Judaism’s ritual system, as shown by the Conversos, is also a medium of transmission. Rituals are vessels by which we pass on to the next generation our values, ethics and beliefs. How many of our rituals are connected to the doing of some form of social action. As abstractions, our inner states rarely grab. They need to be objectified and concretised, wrapped in sanctity, beauty and love till they become habitual.

Recently, Michael Steinhardt, who has certainly done more than his share for world Jewry, suggested that the alumni of Birthright (the Israel tour programme for young adults) get together for Shabbat meals on Friday evenings without its “encrusted … rituals and rules”.

As a secular Jew, he wrote, “it is at Shabbat meals – whether as a host or a guest — that I feel most profoundly and intimately Jewish”. But that is a gastronomic proposal that sucks the marrow right out of the bone! A Judaism stripped of its ritual language has no way to transmit its collective DNA to the next generation. Our challenge is to learn to speak that language better. Ritual doesn’t work if not fraught with a touch of existential intensity.

Rabbi Schorsch, chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, will be in London as guest of honour at a special Shabbat to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Belsize Square Synagogue, March 21/22. He will also speak at JW3 on March 24 and the New North London Synagogue on March 25.

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