Why practice a religion? Why keep commandments? Why observe the ritual practices of any tradition, let alone Judaism? I imagine that for some people who no longer believe in a personal god, or who have a historical or anthropological view of religion, practice and ritual are the contextual, human-made acts of superstition or cultural identity. And they are correct. But that is only the beginning of the story. To understand that humans evolved brains that can perceive their own insignificance in the face of the universe, that is, who can feel awe; to know that our brains evolved in a way that we perceive things that aren’t there; or to know that culture, including religion, emerges out of social interaction in specific times and places and is modified to meet human needs; etc.; is merely to know where religion comes from. But knowing all of that does not erase the real effects of religious practice on individuals and communities, nor does it negate the powerful meanings it generates for adherents.
So clearly, for a rationalist who believes in evolution and in the historical, human production of the Bible, the meaning of ritual, practice, and observance cannot rest upon the ancient convictions that they were given or commanded by a supernatural God. Nor can they end with a mere sociological or functionalist explanation. Can religious practice be meaningful for a rationalist, beyond being an expression of ethnic identity or group fealty?
My own reasons for practice are largely personal, experiential, and ethical, and even aesthetic. I find meaning in the ritual that marks the passage of time and marks time as sacred, both in shabbat and in the holidays; it gives structure and flow to the cycles of my life. I find davening to be a kind of meditative focusing of attention in the sacred, to what is important to me, both in my personal shacharit and at shul. I find the reading of Torah on Saturday mornings to connect the communal to the historical through language and ritual, as it takes multiple people to read correctly. In short, I like practicing Judaism.
Recently I have been reading books about the spiritual aspects of Jewish practice, and one notion has really caught my attention: that Jewish attention to ritual detail and to arguing about how to observe is itself the sacred practice that grounds us in the importance of what we are doing here and now. In a Mormon context—with mandatory belief and constant surveillance—arguments about practice were always expressions of power and domination. They can be so in Judaism as well; but because Judaism’s whole worldview sees sin and salvation and time differently, it feels different somehow. This Rabbi argued that the argument itself is a practice that constantly reminds us of our earthy, embodiedness and our embeddedness in a community. Jewish practice is about being present and paying attention to what we are doing right now. The rules of Judaism and the joy in small things like challah or a shabbat double mitzvot (wink) emphasize its nowness, the holiness of the life we live, rather than a life deferred or to come.
The holiness code in Leviticus, which Christians read as antithetical to salvation, turns out to be the core of not just the rules, but the meaning of Jewish practice itself: To be holy, because God is holy. In his book Sinai & Zion, Dr. Jon D. Levenson, a professor of Hebrew Bible at University of Chicago, has tried to show the Jewishness of the Tanakh, and to reclaim Torah from Christian misreadings. His approach is to explain Jewish theology as expressed in the Torah by seeing it historically and anthropologically, and to carefully peel back the Christian prejudices that often fail to see what is actually in the Torah. Levenson argues that the mitzvot are terms of the covenant, demonstrations of commitment to the suzerain יהוה.
Levenson’s history of Hebrew monotheism, while threatening to some traditional believers, to me humanizes the ancient Hebrews and shows how one group of people, over thousands of years, created its own unique relationship to the universe and to the sacred. Levenson argues that the Hebrews created, through their conception of a covenant with יהוה, a three level theology, which I then borrowed into my own vision of the panentheistic divine as described by Rabbi Green in Radical Judaism.
The Hebrews focused their belief in one god (historically, by ignoring or discrediting other gods). In modern radical Judaism, I would say that Judaism sees the unity and holiness of all Being, of existence itself, of the universe as a whole, in terms of our relationship to it and our consciousness of it. I also think of the mystical explanations of the breath of ה–שם that connects us all, in each breath, to the ongoing creative unfolding of the universe.
The Hebrews central religious tenet was to love god wholly. I feel this love as a deep sense of connection to all of “creation,” to the earth and all living things, and to the universe as a whole. Many eco-Jews today anchor their environmental ethics in this relationship to creation. But it is the fact of existence and knowledge that I exist within and as a part of all existence that a kind of openness breaks open in a love of the divine.
Levenson explains that in Torah, history led up to the covenant at Sinai, and after Sinai are the mitzvot, the ongoing, day-to-day actions that link the people to יהוה. Levenson’s reading of Torah suggests strongly (although he doesn’t say it) that observance of the mitzvot is the means of constantly enacting the relationship to the divine.
In a literal sense, historical, anthropological, the mitzvot are a cultural creation.
But in choosing Judaism, I think what I’m doing is throwing in my lot with the Jews, saying that I choose to take upon myself that relationship to the divine that they have created over the past couple millennia, to commit myself to a Jewish practice as the way my life will be an expression of the sacredness of existence.