Sunday, April 25, 2010

Re-Evaluating Jewish Ritual: A Reading of Hosea 6:6

I had an interesting comment posted on one of my previous blog postings, Jesus Didn't Die For My Sins.  An anonymous Christian had posted how they had troubles believing that a blood sacrifice by Jesus was necessary for atonement.  Their prooftext for this was Hosea 6:6, and the verse reads as such:

כִּי חֶסֶד חָפַצְתִּי, וְלֹא-זָבַח; וְדַעַת אֱלֹהִים, מֵעֹלוֹת.

For I desire loving-kindness, not sacrifices; knowledge of G-d rather than burnt offerings.

For that Christian, they thought that the purpose was not supposed to be obsessed with sacrifice, but with developing a closer relationship to G-d.  I thank him/her for that insight because it helped me think about how that verse had and still does apply to Jews. 

Before I continue with that thought, however, I would like to tell you an anecdote of when I was in Israel back in 2008.  I was praying at the Kotel with my tefillin on.  After I was done davening, I went to return the tefillin that the Chabad rabbis had so generously lent me.  They asked me what I was doing in Israel, and I told them that I was on the Birthright trip.  After asking a bit more about my background, the following conversation ensued:

Chabad Rabbi: Do you keep kosher?

Me: Glatt kosher?  No.

Chabad Rabbi: Do you keep Shabbos?

Me: Shomer Shabbos?  No.

Chabad Rabbi: Well, stay with us for a few days after your Birthright trip, and we'll teach you how to be a real Jew.

The only thing that could run through my mind was "Excuse me?!"  Apparently, for these rabbis, the two indicators of what made a "real Jew" was keeping kosher and Shabbos.  It's safe to say that this is but one scenario where I came to learn of Orthodoxy's overt emphasis on the ritualistic aspect of Judaism.  I started asking myself why that is the case.  In his book A Code of Jewish Ethics: You Shall Be Holy, which, by the way, is an excellent read, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (p. 22) does a good job at providing two reasons for this phenomenon:

1) Preventing assimilation.  Jewish ethics, for instance, have more of a universalist bent to them. Although still important for a large majority of Orthodox Jews, ethics are still deemed as secondary in order to make sure that Jews don't go "off the derech." As such, the Orthodox community primarily emphasizes the particularistic, i.e., the rituals of Judaism.

2) Easier to perform ritualistic acts.  Is it easy to keep kosher or Shabbos?  No.  But when you're in a strictly Jewish community, things such as a kosher supermarket or an eruv around your community ease the difficulties of ritualistic practice considerably.  Ethical commandments, on the other hand, are difficult to perform, no matter how insulated your community is from the secular world.

Now, am I calling for a dismantling of all Jewish rituals?  Of course not!  Rituals such as tefillin, tzitzit, and kashrut all bring one closer to G-d, and I can vouch for that based on personal experience.  But let's go back to Hosea 6:6 so we can bring some context into what I'm trying to get at.  By the time of the later prophets, many thought that the motion of going through the sacrificial process replaced an actual relationship with G-d.  As Maimonides points out in the Guide for the Perplexed (III, xxxii), the sacrifices were supposed to be the means rather than the ends.  This then begs the question of what the ends are.  Look at the verse: the ends are loving-kindness and knowledge of G-d.

Hosea's criticism of Jewish practice rings as true today as it did back then.  It is not just about "going through the motions" or reciting the magic formula (i.e., the bracha).  Rather, the rituals are supposed to be transformative acts.  Rituals make us aware of His presence and that He sustains us.  Rituals remind us that we are to be performing acts of kindness as a form of imitatio Dei.  When we realize the role that ritual plays within the greater Jewish context, we can greater enhance what it means to develop a true relationship with G-d.    

1 comment:

  1. mate stick 2 da point n just give us an answer