As previously mentioned, I’m taking a Jewish Spirituality course this semester. This post, crossposted to New Voices here, is actually just the first of four two-page reflection papers that I’ll do for this course over the course of the semester. There a few ideas in here that I don’t think I’ve ever articulated here at The Shuckle before, so I thought I’d give y’all a chance to read this paper.
David A.M. Wilensky
First Reflection Paper—Identity and Lifestyle
I don’t know if this has anything to do with the class, but I began davening Maariv, Minchah and Shacharit every day the day before Rosh Hashanah. I’ve only missed one Minchah so far, while missing no Shacharit or Maariv. I’m not sure why I’m doing it, but there it is.
Among Jews of a particular conservative (with a small “c”) kind of observance, there’s an idea that somone who does all of the mitzvot—as though there is somewhere a complete list—will discover meaning in all of them. This meaning is inherent and divine. The meaning may not be apparent until one starts doing that mitzvah. Sometimes, these people say, it may not be apparent for many years.
Growing up in the Reform movement, that always seemed like a ludicrous proposition. The Reform movement has historically had an intellectual bent that is uncomfortable with that kind of thought process. Rituals, we would say, were created by people, not God, so they do not have inherent meaning. At the same time, we would relabel the bein adam l’chaveiro/bein adam l’makom dichotomy as a ritual/ethical dichotomy.
In high school, when I began going to services every Shabbat morning and every erev Shabbat, stopped doing work in exchange for money on Shabbat and stopped doing homework on Shabbat, I found that the line between ritul and ethical commandments is thin. I thought at one point that if everyone would just calm down every seventh day, the whole world would be improved. When I started to wear tzitzit every day, the line seemed even thinner. If tzitzit are a meta-mitzvah that reinforces observance of other mitzvot, how could it even be classified as either ritual or ethical? Clearly, I reasoned—and I still do—it must be both.
I’m still Reform, though I’m not a member of the Reform movement (where “Reform movement” means official Reform bodies such as the URJ). As such, I still belive that Judaism is a system of meaning created by human beings that acts to create more ethical, considerate people. I’ve found that the reasoning I cited earlier, that something created by God would have inherent meaning that something created by humans wouldn’t have, doesn’t hold up. We did not create rituals for kicks. We built meaning into them and I have started to see discovery of the meaning our ancestors built into them—or discovery of new meaning we can layer on them—as a goal. Though I have yet to discover any divine reasons for new mitzvot I’ve obligated myself in, I have yet to try on a new mitzvah that I haven’t found meaningful or helpful.
“Complete observance”—whatever that would even mean—is not a goal of mine. I don’t see myself eating only kosher food anytime soon. Likewise, I can’t imagine not scribbling notes in the margins of my Tanach or siddur on Shabbat. There is a whole idea percolating in my head right now about jotting down notes while praying as a spiritual practice. (If, as Louis Finkelstein said, “When I pray, I speak to God; when I study, God speaks to me,” does that mean that if I study the siddur while I pray, I am the rare person that God actually talks back to while praying? And I say that with my tongue about halfway into my cheek.)
What I have found, however, is two new ideas. The first is that trying on more ritual usually turns out well. I’m even prepared to try tefilin again, which didn’t turn out well the first time. (Your suggestion about the reason for the four compartments in the shel rosh and the one in the shel yad is the first compelling reason I’ve ever heard for tefilin.) The second is that obligation is not a bad word, but that in today’s world I can only obligate myself. So I’m trying on rituals. When something happens, or it looks like something might happen, I am obligating myself in the new ritual. That means that if I eat bacon, I feel no remorse because I haven’t obligated myself in kashrut. But when I miss Minchah, I kick myself because that’s something I’ve obligated myself in.