Nearly 200 years ago, Rabbi Israel Salantar, the founder of the Musar movement, a philosophy that sought to move ethics back to the center of Jewish life, told his students that he had an important job for them. They were to go out and inspect the local matzah factory to certify that its products were indeed kosher for Passover. They talked amongst themselves before their rabbi arrived. They had spent weeks studying Passover’s restrictions and pouring over the words of the Talmudic tractate detailing the holiday’s laws.
They had argued whether or not legumes should be permitted on the holiday and how to sell the hametz. One of them asked the group, “How many minutes must transpire from when the flour and water are mixed until the matzah is taken out of the oven?” “Eighteen minutes,” another shouted. (In a nutshell the technical difference between bread and matzah is about the timing. Eighteen minutes or under its matzah. Nineteen its bread—not good bread, but bread nonetheless.)
The great sage then entered the class. “We are ready for this holy task,” they said in unison. “Rabbi,” one of his students asked. “Is there something we should specifically look for there?” “Yes. Most definitely,” said Rabbi Salanter. “When you get to the factory, you will see an old woman baking matzah. The woman is poor and has a large family to support. Make sure that the factory’s owners are paying her a living wage.”
The students stared at each other in astonishment. One asked, “What about making sure the preparation and cooking take no more than eighteen minutes?” “That is really not the most important thing, my students,” Salanter said. “The most important thing is to make sure that the person who is baking this matzah is properly taken care of. If she is not then the matzah factory is not worthy of being called kosher.”
People often define religiosity in terms of ritual scrupulousness. That makes sense given this week’s portion that details all of the major Jewish holidays: Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot and even the Omer period in which we now find ourselves. That makes sense given the importance people often ascribe to participation in Shabbat services.
On Friday evening I often hear, “Rabbi, where is everyone? Why are people not here at services? No one is practicing Judaism anymore. If we don’t make sure more people are more observant then our people are not going to be around much longer.” I usually respond: “What does being Jewish mean to you?” And they answer, “Observing Shabbat. Coming to services. Celebrating the holidays.”
I admit. I love our praying and singing. It offers me uplift. Shabbat prayer provides me the opportunity to connect with God and with people—in real time and in the real world, as opposed to the virtual world of Facebook and Instagram. It offers me a respite from the weekday worries. And when it works really well prayer helps to point me towards my ethical obligations.
Judaism does not view rituals as ends unto themselves. It does not view the Shabbat candles or the mezuzah as protective amulets that will ward away bad tidings. If people kiss the mezuzah, for example, when entering their home but then scream and yell at their family then they are missing the mezuzah’s greatest lesson. The theory is simple. If you kiss the mezuzah you are more apt to treat others with love and kindness. If you light the candles you are more likely to work to bring a measure of shalom to the world.
Rituals point to ethics.
Still it appears that an increasing number of American Jewish have become less enamored with our tradition’s rituals. They find yoga, or perhaps cycling, as more centering than Shabbat prayers.
So the question for today is can we do Jewish with lives less infused with Jewish ritual? At the very least we should expand our understanding of what it means to be religious. We should stop writing ourselves out of being religious because we do not light candles eighteen minutes before sunset or only eat matzah during Passover. We should instead ask ourselves the more challenging questions.
Do we pay our employees a living wage? Do we love the stranger? Do we give enough to tzedakah? Do we avoid speaking lashon hara—gossip? Do we treat our parents with respect?
That list is perhaps lengthier than the list of ritual commandments. It is certainly more challenging to observe than coming to services each and every Friday evening. But answer, “Yes, I do.” to even a few of these commands on even a somewhat regular basis and we can begin to call ourselves religious.
Perhaps we should become just as devout in calling our parents before Shabbat as lighting the candles. Perhaps we should be just as scrupulous with the words we speak about our neighbors as we do with the adornments of the Passover seder plate.
One day I dream of saying, “I serve the most religious congregation anyone can ever imagine. They all might not be here this Shabbat evening but they are busy making the world a better place with a word of kindness here and an extra dollar there.