Even for those of us who are skeptical about God’s role in human history, Jewish ritual can be sacred and holy. I was in Israel not long ago on a UJA Young Leadership Mission. During a morning meeting with our Israeli peers, we turned to the subject of Jewish ritual.
One of my new Israeli friends said: “I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God, so I have no use for Jewish rituals.” In his view, observant Jews practice Judaism because they believe that God has commanded them through Torah. Since my Israeli friend is an atheist, he saw no authority behind the rituals and no reason to be observant.
This conversation reminded me of some serious soul-searching I had undergone during my early years at Kenyon College. My concentration in philosophy forced me to challenge the legitimacy of many of the beliefs with which I had grown up as a Reform Jew — including belief in a God who directly affects human history.
I eventually had to admit that I didn’t believe in such a God. Rather, I strongly believe that human beings have the free will to shape our lives. I came to the view that religion is not a history of God’s revelations to particular individuals or peoples, but a history of spiritually gifted human beings searching for God — for that Supreme Reality which binds our universe together and imbues our lives with meaning.
Where did that leave ritual in my life? By the middle of my college years, I no longer saw Jewish rituals as commanded by God, and intellectually I started to drift away from Judaism. Nevertheless, Judaism had always been a very important part of my life, and I was feeling a strong tension between my mind and my heart.
That’s when I made a turning-point decision: During my senior years at Kenyon, I undertook a year-long independent study with Prof. Don Rogan, at that time chairing Kenyon’s Religion Department. Prof. Rogan is an ordained minister and a very independent thinker who, after his own soul-searching had devoted his career to teaching religion. He and I spent that year reading and discussing Mordecai Kaplan’s The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath — each an extraordinary book in its own unique way. Kaplan, in particular, had a profound impact on me, for he taught that religious observance has its own inherent value — that it isn’t necessary to believe that God ordained a specific ritual in order to find profound meaning in its observance.
This is seen most clearly in our observance of the holidays and festivals. Consider Sabbath rituals: An Orthodox Jew might tell you that he or she observes Shabbat rituals because God commanded the Jewish people to do so, initially at Sinai through the Fourth Commandment, and then through centuries of interpreting God’s law. My new Israeli friend, on the other hand, might say that since he does not believe in God, there is no authority behind the shabbat rituals and no rational or compelling reason to follow them.
The brilliant insight of Kaplan was to show us that the observance of Shabbat has its own inherent meaning and beauty. For six days each week we labor. We produce and consume; build and rebuild; invent and improve. Sometimes, in our absorption with comfortable living, we unwittingly become slaves to that which we call progress. Then we arrive at Shabbat: a realm of time when the good is not to have, but to be; not to own, but to share; not to subdue, but to be in harmony with the people and world around us. Shabbat serves as an interlude when we engage in true relationship with families, friends, communities and nature. This is a truly remarkable legacy, achieved through the collective wisdom of our ancestors.
A commitment to observe Shabbat is really a commitment to spend at least one-seventh of our lives free from the demands of our complex civilization and focusing, without distraction, on those truly fulfilling relationships that lend spiritual fulfillment and meaning to our lives. The observance of this day of rest and reflection is, I believe, the greatest gift our people has made to human civilization.
Kaplan also finds much inherent meaning in the other Jewish holidays. Consider the three festivals: Sukkot, Pesakh, and Shavuot. A unique and wonderful aspect of Judaism has been the evolution of these agricultural festivals into commemorations of historical events.
Sukkot, for example, sanctifies the historical and the natural, the spiritual and the physical. When we enter the sukkah, decorated with nature’s bounties, we rejoice in the majesty and sweetness of nature, symbolized by the lulav and etrog. The genius of Sukkot is that the sukkah also beckons us to remember how our ancestors lived during their exodus from Egypt.
During the festival of Pesakh we recall that great epoch in our past when our ancestors were liberated from Egyptian bondage. We gather to recall the bitterness of enslavement and to rejoice in the sweetness of freedom. During the Spring season that brings new life to the world, we gain a renewed appreciation of the freedom to live without fear, to earn one’s daily bread, and to determine our own futures.
Kaplan teaches that as the seeds of freedom are sown during Pesakh, the fruits of salvation are harvested at Shavuot. Our ancient ancestors, with eager anticipation, counted the days from the rebirth of nature during Pesah to the harvest of nature’s fruits on Shavuot. So in our time, from the festive commemoration of the Exodus during Pesakh, we look with anticipation to the celebration of our Covenant made at Sinai, an agreement to live according to principles of peace and justice. Regardless of what actually happened historically at Sinai, it represents for us a beginning. The Torah, which we honor on Shavuot, embodies the dedication of our people to the discovery of sacred principles.
Kaplan also helped me to understand that the High Holy Days have their own inherent beauty and meaning. The High Holy Days teach us that we must repair those relationships which have been damaged, and return to the ideals of our heritage. On Rosh Hashanah, the shofar summons us to examine all that has occurred in the year now past; on Yom Kippur, we must embark on teshuvah, we must return. By fasting, we acknowledge the inner strength necessary to subordinate our selfish interests to the higher ideals of our community and our heritage.
Finally, Kaplan taught me that Hanukkah also has a deeply relevant meaning, apart from the traditional belief in the “miracle of lights.” On its deepest level, Hanukkah is about Jewish survival. During its eight days, we reflect on our turbulent history, on the oppressors of every age who have sought to shatter the bonds of our Covenant. We are reminded that while mighty civilizations have fallen, Jewish civilization has endured — because our way of life has been based not on power, but on justice. It is because we have lived not only for our own nation, but for all that makes human life worthwhile and sacred, that we have always found the will to endure in the face of oppression.
And so, to my Israeli friend who asks why practice Jewish rituals if you don’t believe they are ordained by God, I would respond:
- Keep the Sabbath because the more we respect its sanctity, the more this beautiful legacy will bring families, friends and communities closer together and give each of us the perspective we need to grow spiritually;
- Build a sukkah to remind us of the bounties of nature and our collective responsibility to preserve our wondrous planet for future generations;
- Celebrate Shavuot to remind us of the spiritual richness of our Torah, which reflects the search of generation upon generation of Jews to find that in life which is most sacred;
- Honor the High Holy Days for the profound opportunities they give us to reflect on our own conduct and for their relentless persuasion to repair all of our relationships; and
- Light the festival candles during Hanukkah to remind us that we have survived as a people against extraordinary odds, by our common devotion to righteousness and justice.
For all these reasons, Jews can find deep and authentic meaning in the observance of ritual — regardless of whether we believe the rituals originate with God, or reflect the Jewish people’s search for God. By the end of my senior year in college, Mordecai Kaplan’s philosophy had started me down the long road of understanding how the observance of Jewish ritual can be spiritually meaningful and, at the same time, intellectually honest. In short, Kaplan’s philosophy helped me to reconcile my mind with my heart. What more could we ask of any teacher?
(This piece was originally published in the Winter 2000-2001 Issue of Reconstructionism Today)