What is the role of ritual?

What is the role of ritual?

D'var Torah Hits: 49

Tetzaveh 5779

If last week’s sidra felt full of irrelevant details, then this week’s sidra feels even more so.

As I reflected last week, the priesthood and all the rituals associated with it were long ago rejected by Liberal Judaism. Yet the priesthood had meaning for our people throughout much of its history. There was something comforting about an authority figure of such splendour. The priestly garments which we read about this week were designed to give the High Priest a special aura, symbolising his status as a representative of God. The nearest equivalent today is perhaps the Pope, in his dazzling white robes, appearing to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square. Christian bishops of the Anglican Church have also retained splendid garments recalling the priesthood: a mitre, a robe, a sash, which reflect their priestly status. Rabbis are not priests and they are not distinguished by their garments. There was a time when rabbis, even Orthodox ones, were called ‘reverend’ and wore canonical garb. That was influenced by the Christian church and came to be seen as Christian and so rejected. Alongside this was the idea that rabbis are part of the congregation and have no special route to God. We may lead prayer but we are not intermediaries in prayer.

Yet sometimes we yearn for the mystery and aura that was associated with the priesthood. Liberal Judaism in the past has emphasised rationality but in recent years we have come to realise that when it comes to religion, that is not enough. Religion enables us to reach beyond the rational and in doing so we have to engage our heart as well as our brain. Early on, the founders of our movement rejected certain rituals because they seemed superstitious, foremost amongst them the wearing of tefillin. This is understandable. Tefillin were called ‘phyllacteries’ in English, related to the word ‘prophyllaxis’, or prevention. They seem to have been thought of by some as a sort of preventative amulet, to ward off evil. This was the sort of superstition that Progressive Judaism rejected firmly, alongside amulets or any rituals designed to ward off evil spirits or exert some sort of magical influence.

But there is more to tefillin than superstition. More and more Liberal Jews now wear tefillin because it helps them to focus on prayer and God. It is no coincidence that the blessings for putting on tefillin were included in Siddur Lev Chadash when it was published in 1995. There is a particularly beautiful moment when you wrap the strap of the tefillin around your finger and recite words from the prophet Hosea: ‘I will betroth you to Me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion; I will betroth you to me in faithfulness and you shall know the Eternal One.’ If you approach this moment with kavannah, with intention and concentration, it can help you feel very close to God.

The founders of our movement might be surprised at the return to Liberal practice of tefillin, but they would probably not be shocked by it. Although our founders, Claude Montefiore, Israel Mattuck and Lily Montagu did not retain rituals, they always remained open to the possibilty that they might be re-introduced. For them, Liberal Judaism was not static, but continually developing and reassessing its practice. Rabbi Nathan Godleman, in his rabbinic dissertation, showed that in their writings they were far from rigid about what practices should be observed. Claude Montefiore, in his book ‘Outlines of Liberal Judaism’ wrote: ‘Liberal Judaism does not mean identity of outward forms. The forms, the details of public worship, constitute only a very secondary part of it. Its essence and life are its ideas, its teaching, its doctrines’. Lily Montagu wrote ‘Today we are modifying our religious practices and refining them until they can make a more direct appeal to the spiritual life. We believe that our religion will become more vital as it loses some of its material trappings, but in God’s name let us beware lest we refine it away.’ For Montefiore and Montagu, it was not particularly important what rituals we kept, as long as they helped us to develop a spiritual life and help us to observe the ethical and moral teachings of Judaism. Montagu is striking in warning that we should not go too far in eliminating ritual for it does have value.
Rabbi John Rayner, who was the most important link between the founders and our own generation of rabbis, equally emphasised the value of ritual if used wisely, and the need to be open to it. It was he who introduced the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot to Liberal Judaism, a ritual which had originally been kabbalistic but was infused with new significance.

There is something about ritual which can appeal to our emotions in a way that mere words cannot. As our founders would have warned, we must beware lest ritual become a means in itself. The priestly garments were an outward form and when he was wearing them, the High Priest had to be particularly aware of his intentions and ensure that they were pure. But if a ritual helps us to be more pure in our intentions, more devoted in our prayers and more dedicated in our deeds, then that ritual is to be welcomed.

As we pray, and as we observe rituals, may we always do so with Kavanah, with intention, directing our thoughts towards the Divine, so that our prayers may find meaning and fulfilment in the lives we live, so that the words of the Psalmist may be fulfilled: Yihyu l’ratzon imrei fi… - may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before you, Eternal One, my Rock and my Redeemer.’

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