Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Brief Foray Into Religion - Ritual Without Belief: What is it Good For?

A teacher once told me that my refusal to pray was childish. My insistence on believing in the literal meanings of the word I said when I prayed, he argued, was immature. The ability to say the prayers and recognize their inherent contradictions, but still say them was, for him, the mark of maturity. A child cannot live with contradiction; he or she demands complete logical and moral consistency. Yet an adult - a mature and reasonable person - can live with contradiction and cognitive dissonance. Yes, a contradiction arises when one observes ritual without believing in god. However, a truly mature person has the capacity to deal with that contradiction, and thus practices ritual anyway.

At the time, this sounded reasonable. It made the case for practicing ritual without belief fairly well. But I soon wanted something more certain, something more purposeful. If I wasn't going to engage in ritual observance for a deity, I wanted to do it for a reason. Ritual observance, I decided, would only be worth practicing if it was responsible for the genius of the "non-Jewish Jew." To this end, I found counsel in an article by an old socialist writer and historian.

In Isaac Deutscher's "Message of the Non-Jewish Jew", he defines the "non-Jewish Jew" as someone who transcends Jewry, and in many instances rejects it, while still belonging to a Jewish tradition. Deutscher argues that major thinkers of Jewish descent - Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Luxembourg, and Trotsky - were able to revolutionize the fields of philosophy, sociology, economics, and politics because of their special positions on the margins of society.
"They were a priori exceptional in that as Jews they dwelt on the borderlines of various civilizations, religions and national cultures. They were born and brought up on the borderlines of various epochs...They lived on the margins or in the nooks and crannies of their respsecive nations. They were each in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it. It was this that enabled them to rise in thoguht above their societies, above their nations, above their times and generations, and to strike out mentally into wide new horizons far into the future."
This unique place of the Jew in society that Deutscher describes is attained through ritual observance. Jewish ritual observance in the diaspora is a kind of self-ghettoization - a form of separation from surrounding society. The Jew is part of society, as he participates economically and socially in the country and community in which he lives. Yet, at the same time, the Jew is recognized as different and separate from the dominant religious group or even nationality. He is set apart by the laws of kashrut and by the obligation to keep the Sabbath, among many other things.  This allows Jews to be "each in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it." By virtue of this in-and-out dualism, the aforementioned "non-Jewish Jews"  had all this in common, "that the very conditions in which they lived did not allow them to reconcile themselves to ideas which were nationally or religiously limited." Ritual observance is what places the Jew on the borderlines of civilizations- part of one society, but at the same time not truly part of that society.

The separateness of the Jew from society allows him to critique and challenge, and perhaps even alter society and its institutions."Those who are shut in within one society, one nation, or one religion tend to imagine that their way of life and their way of thought have absolute and unchangeable validity and that all that contradicts their standards is somehow 'unnatural,' inferior or evil. Those on the other hand, who live on the borderlines of various civilizations comprehend more clearly the great movement and the great contradictoriness of society." The Jew who transcends his Judaism is thus perfectly equipped to comprehend and reorder society.

The rationale for ritual practice without belief and continued Jewish text study is that it is necessary for the creation of future social critics and figures who are willing to challenge and eventually alter the status quo. I now have reason to observe religious tradition without believing in a word I say when I daven. But more curiously, I now have reason to be concerned about Jewish continuity. If knowledge of tradition, texts, and ritual is eroded, from where will the next great "non-Jewish Jewish" thinkers come?

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