The first time anthropologist Richard Sosis visited the Old City in Jerusalem at the age of 15, the people praying at the Western Wall made a far greater impression on him than the Kotel itself. Their dress and behavior struck him as strange. “Why would anyone in their right mind dress for a New England winter only to spend the afternoon praying in the desert heat?” Of course, Jews are not alone in engaging in behaviors and rituals that appear strange to outsiders. Human groups around the world engage in rituals ranging from innocuous and charming, to extreme rituals that involve bodily mutilation and scarring. Of course, animals exhibit ritual behavior, as well, which is well documented.
But what is at the core of religious rituals and prescribed behaviors? Freud believed that madness induces intense religious behavior. The 20th century anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski held the diverse array of religious rituals arose out of genuine tragedies and conflicts people face in life. William Irons, a behavioral ecologist at Northwestern University, explains that rituals communicate identity with, and belong to, a group; a willingness to cooperate with members of the group on matters of survival, such as providing food and defense; and broadcast a “you can trust me” message to the broader community of believers. Even Sosis, for all the time he spent in Israel, seems able to view ritual observance only as an onerous burden. Yet in studying members of religious and secular kibbutzim, he and his colleague Eric Bressler found, to their surprise, that the imposition of “costly requirements” on members improved the longevity of the group. Sosis turns to cultural ecologist Roy Rappaport who (in Sosis’ words) explained that religious rituals have greater power and influence in the realms of belief and commitment precisely because they “sanctify unfalsifiable statements.”
Does it all come down to group identity and cooperation, or an expression of dogmatic beliefs? Or is there something more? What is missing from all these explanations is any recognition that religious behaviors and rituals might be meaningful or fulfilling in themselves. In other words: that they have a spiritual valance for the practitioner.
Parshat Yitro, in dramatic and awe-inspiring language, describes the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. Amidst thunder and lightning, the Israelites enter into a covenant with God, obligating themselves and their progeny for all time. The parashah includes the first iteration of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:1-14). To be sure, the Israelites’ encounter with the Divine is intertwined with the promulgation of religious legal restrictions and requirements. It is certainly true that the general idea of mitzvot is that a common body of practice binds the Jewish community together, affording and perpetuating a shared identity, culture, value system, and mission. Their lives, from this time forward, will be circumscribed by the laws of the Torah. The elements of belief and trust that anthropologists have identified are implicit in the Torah’s telling of the event:
וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה, וַיִּקְרָא לְזִקְנֵי הָעָם; וַיָּשֶׂם לִפְנֵיהֶם, אֵת כָּל-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּהוּ, יְהוָה. וַיַּעֲנוּ כָל-הָעָם יַחְדָּו וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה; וַיָּשֶׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶת-דִּבְרֵי הָעָם, אֶל-יְהוָה. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָּא אֵלֶיךָ בְּעַב הֶעָנָן, בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ, וְגַם-בְּךָ יַאֲמִינוּ לְעוֹלָם
Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” (Exodus 19:7-9a)
All this affirms Sosis, Bressler, and Rappaport. But is there nothing more?
Torah reports the awe—the spiritual experience—of the people. Having escaped Egypt, the Israelites enter the Wilderness of Sinai and encamp at the base of the mountain where they prepare to enter into an eternal covenant with God. God calls to Moses from the mountain and instructs him to tell the Israelites:
.אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי לְמִצְרָיִם; וָאֶשָּׂא אֶתְכֶם עַל-כַּנְפֵי נְשָׁרִים, וָאָבִא אֶתְכֶם אֵלָי
You have seen what I did to Egypt; and how I carried you aloft on the wings of eagles and brought you to Myself. (Exodus 19:4)
God has carried them out of Egypt, as it were, in the wings of eagles, and brought them to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. What a magnificent image. Freed from the oppression of Egyptian taskmasters, the people fly free to Sinai where they enter into a covenant that brings them to God—suggesting that the purpose of the mitzvot is to engender spiritual closeness to God. But does it work that way?
The mitzvot recounted in Parshat Yitro and throughout the Torah, subsequently interpreted by the Rabbis of the Talmud and many scholars, teachers, and authorities after them, have traveled with us through time and space for three millennia. Today two divergent tendencies have emerged: One tendency is to pile stringency upon stringency, heaping restriction upon restriction to the point of absurd hechsher wars that divide families and friends along kashrut lines, poverty resulting from the rejection of responsible manhood (supposedly because God prefers men of mediocre minds to study Torah rather than support their own children), and a complete pre-occupation with the minutiae of every possible ritual while ignoring the concerns and crises of the surrounding world. Sosis’ perspective on extreme religious ritual would seem to describe this phenomenon well.
The second tndency is an increasingly creative and innovative approach to Jewish tradition and practice, building on inherited tradition, and expanding in a variety of directions in response to religious, spiritual and emotional needs. The Jewish world is experiencing a blossoming of serious, modern, and novel learning enterprises grounded in reappraising and reinterpreting sacred texts, as well as ground-breaking approaches to Jewish practice, including re-visioning rituals such as mikveh, kashrut, and prayer to reflect the values we hold sacred.
There are those who would claim that the first tendency is the “traditional” Jewish way. I would argue, however, that extreme rigidity is a relatively new approach to Judaism; it is a reaction to the openness and modernity that the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) embraced but which spawned a fossilizing fear that assimilation would spell the end of the Jewish people among some. That fear was expressed by Simon Rawidowicz in his famous essay, “Israel: The Ever-Dying People”—
The threat of doom, of an end that forecloses any new beginning hung over the people of Israel even before it gained its peoplehood, while it was taking its first steps on the stage of history. Indeed, it would often seem as if Israel’s end preceded its very beginning. Almost from the first meeting in the desert between Moses and Israel, when the prince of prophets uttered the dread admonitions of Deuteronomy, to the pseudo prophetic outbursts of Bialik in the twentieth century, its seers and mentors have time and again pronounced the dire warning: “Israel, thou art going to be wiped off the face of the earth; the end is near—unless and if…” there were many ‘ifs,” and yet they were always the same.
Rawidowicz called for an end to the panic. After all, looking back, we see that the Rabbis created Judaism out of the debris of the Temple and decimated nation of biblical Israel. Throughout the ages, Judaism not merely survived, but flourished. Implicit in our flourishing is change and innovation. The Judaisms of today are very different from what the Rabbis shaped nearly two millennia ago, but so is the Judaism Rashi practiced in Provence in the 11th century, Rambam observed in Spain and Egypt in the 12th century, and the Baal Shem Tov taught in Poland in the 18th century.
Do the mitzvot exist to function as anthropologists such as Sosis and Rappaport describe, coercing commitment and cooperation within a group? Alternatively, are they an end in themselves, marching orders from a stern deity, as the religious myth of Sinai purports? Or perhaps are they a means to something more sublime and spiritual? The answer we arrive at will guide the direction we go as individuals and as communities of Jews.
With this in mind, I want to share a commentary on Parshat Yitro by Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf of Zhytomir (d. 1780), a hasidic master and author of Or ha-Meir. He writes that the purpose of creation, and the whole of human life, is to seek God’s oneness, to know God and merge with the godhead. This is unquestionably a individual, spiritual goal, achieved within and through the larger community of Jews and their practices. Indeed, we would expect him to say that living a committed Jewish life is the ticket to success in this spiritual endeavor. But Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf is not so naive. He understands that religious fulfillment and spiritual connection do not happen easily, and that through time as we grow and change, so may our needs, so that our practices grow stale:
We, however, do not possess the breadth of mind needed to know how to rouse our spirits in each and every moment. We see from our own experience that sometimes a person can serve God in a particular way for a certain period of time. But as time passes, this quality of service grows old; its time passes and it is not as vital and beloved as it once was. The Ba’al Shem Tov read the verse, אַל-תַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי, לְעֵת זִקְנָה Cast me not off at (to) the time of old age (Psalm 71:9) to mean: “Do not let time cast you into ‘oldness.’” Sometimes a person’s way of serving grows old due to the passage of time…
What an amazing way to read the famous verse Psalm 71:9, which expresses the fear that God will cast us aside in old age when we are no longer vibrant. (Certainly a fear held by many people that when they grow old, others—even God—will see them as useless and ignore them.) For Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf, the verse speaks not about us when we grow old, but rather about religious practices that become “old” and stale and in need of renewal because they no longer serve the spiritual purpose of bringing us close to God.
In the same way, I read the verse, תִּתְחַדֵּשׁ כַּנֶּשֶׁר נְעוּרָיְכִי Renew your youth like the eagle (Psalm 103:5). Our sages were aroused to explain that the eagle [or: phoenix] sheds its feathers every thousand years and renews its youth. “Feathers” indicates a sort of garment. It is well know that all of our devotion, including the actual commandments, are nothing other than a garment…
This is a radical commentary. Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf acknowledges that the mitzvot are like “feathers” or “garments” that conceal the truly important reality of God (ultimate truth, wisdom, and reality) from our eyes. The purpose of mitzvot is to open a doorway to God, but if we don’t find them meaningful and simply do them by rote, they are like a closed door.
A person of true insight understands that even the different appearances in which God is “garbed” for the sake of human worship all lead to the same place, indicating God’s blessed oneness. It is for our sake that the Creator appears in such varied garments, so that each living person may be able to arouse the inner heart to constantly discover God anew. When the category through which you now serve grows old for you, you will be able to swap it for another garment, finding a place for it in your soul. All this is brought about by God for our good and the perfection of our souls, so that we ever remain awake and do not fall into “old age.” This is the “shedding of feathers” to which I have referred. When things grow old, you “shed” the former way of service and renew your youth, finding some wise clue that will awaken a renewal within you, leading you to a different garment…
Here Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf invites us to experiment with different “garments”—different ways of serving God in the search for what works. No doubt he would readily acknowledge that ritual in the Jewish world should not be a complete free-for-all; there are boundaries. Yet note that there is no sense of criticism or condemnation in Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf’s tone. He simply acknowledges that as we go through life, what once “worked” may no longer work. We change. And so should our practices in order to stay fresh and meaningful.
Now I can explain, You have seen what I did to Egypt. I, Myself, have brought it about that a person falls into a strait. [He reads Exodus 19:4 as, “You have seen that I have made a narrow place/strait.”] We have learned that one always has to be in a state of “back and forth”; it is impossible to stand still on a single rung. But an intelligent person who contemplates this with the inner mind will understand that this, too, comes from God. God is to be found “garbed” in that very situation for our own sake. It is this that brings us to constant arousal and renewal, giving rebirth to our religious life. “You will come to see and understand that I made this mitzrayim (Egypt, or “narrow place/strait”). The value of your seeing this is that I carried you aloft on—higher than—the wings of eagles and brought you to Myself. It is all due to God’s help. When you reach Chochmah (Wisdom), true inner wisdom, you will serve God even without that feathered garment. I brought you to Myself (אֵלָי)—I have brought you to the letter י (yod), chochmah, beyond all the seven categories of garb, to the place where there are no “feathers.”
It is the spiritual experience of God that is the priority. Mitzvot are a means to an end: their purpose is to bring us close to God, to the source of life and wisdom. But when that doesn’t happen, Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf encourages us to let the feathers molt. Would he approve the creativity and innovation afoot in segments of the Jewish world? It’s hard to say, but I’d like to think yes.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman