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Why Practice Judaism?
Reflections on religious practice ahead of Rosh Hashanah
I was asked to contribute a piece to the Cremorne Jewish community in Sydney ahead of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which this year begins the evening of 25 September. Judaism does not proselytise — this is written for a Jewish audience. You, Gentile friend, are welcome to listen in. My reflections below need not apply only to Jewish or religious practice. This piece is also fulfilling a promise I made previously. It’s less kvetchy in tone than usual — my congregation is of a different temperament to you lot — and I promise to return to my usual programming soon….
I was asked to share my personal perspective on religious practice. Neither my wife nor I grew up in Jewish practicing households. For us, practice is a choice, a path with few natural grooves. It’s a path we have had to cut ourselves — with, of course, the support and warmth of our teachers and community. But it’s a deliberate path. Increasingly we attend synagogue, put on tefillin, daven, keep kosher and Shabbat, and so on.
I would like to tell you why we choose this path.
First, I would like to give you the easy answer. We do what is hard so that our children may do what is easy. We are carving out grooves for them to follow. We hope they will at least have the choice, the songs, rituals and education to follow.
But I would also like to give you a harder answer. Why do it for ourselves?
I could write about the rewards of silence from the outside world when we prepare for Shabbat on Friday night, and my wife lights the candles with my daughters. Or the power in communal singing otherwise lost in modernity, in Shul every Shabbat, swaying to Etz Chayim at the closing of the ark. Or the meditative benefits of prayer and donning tefillin, alone or especially in a minyan. Each mitzvah, each observance has its meaning and its own set of commentaries and debates. But today I won’t write about these, I’ll write about the meaning of practice itself.
I can only speak for myself. Others may have better reasons, and any mistakes that follow are mine alone. And whilst we do more than we did before, we are less observant than many of our peers. And an ocean separates us from the truly devout. I am in no position to preach, but aim to share reflections.
Practice precedes faith
Many religious and non-religious organisations have recognised a universal human phenomenon where practice precedes faith. Polish author Czesław Miłosz wrote:
Collective religious ceremonies induce a state of belief. Folding one's hands in prayer, kneeling, singing hymns precede faith, for faith is a psycho-physical and not simply a psychological phenomenon.
Miłosz was writing in the unsavoury context of understanding Soviet institutions. But we can use this understanding to also hack our own minds.
Practice in Judaism
Judaism is especially partial to practice. Action first. Follow, then understand.
(ז) וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר ה' נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃
“And he [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the Eternal has spoken will we do, and obey.’”
We will do first.
This focus on action is forgiving of intellectual and spiritual transgression. It gives intellectual freedom — ask why as much as you like! Disagree as much as you like. But do. Perhaps this is one reason Judaism has spawned such breadth and depth in thinkers and thought — up to the point that apostacy itself appears to be a Jewish tradition.
It also provides for inner turmoil — of anger, of envy, of lust, of disdain — so long as you do not transgress (verb!). In this way Judaism is surprisingly forgiving of the human condition itself.
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The rails of habit
Ok, so there’s a religious justification for following religion. It’s not convincing on its own. Do you ask a barber if you need a haircut? Alone, it’s circular, recursive. So why religious practice?
Someone once said: “Marriage is for when love isn’t enough.” This is not to cast too cynical an eye on marriage. Nor does it disavow love in marriage. Rather, it recognises that life is complex and relationships are in a natural state of flux through the moments of joy and suffering that they endure. There are moments when we must fall back on marriage itself, on the covenant of marriage itself. The bond, the promise. It provides the rails to stay the course.
I think the same can be said for religion. One might phrase it, perhaps controversially, as: “Religion is for when God isn’t enough”. This, like with marriage, does not disavow God. It recognises the complexity and tumultuousness of life. Sometimes all we have to cling onto are our habits.
The way you spend your days is the way you spend your life.
One reason we do the things we do is because we want to become a particular kind of person. I admire the pious solitude of the righteous. The communal warmth of a minyan, a simcha, a kiddush. The strength of the penitent.
This of course applies to non-religious aspirations — you might read or cycle or admire art or surf because you want to be the kind of person who does those things. Do you want to be the kind of person who seeks to connect with thousands of years of communal observance?
It can be tough to wake up to join an early minyan. Like it is tough to wake up to go for an early morning ride or surf. But those are the moments to lean in most. You always feel better for meeting the dawn with your habit and working physical and spiritual muscles.
As Jews we are not given a reason for why we do some things. Why certain animals are kosher. Why certain sacrifices at the temple were made. The Sages offer no answers to these questions. These are unknowable. We simply know that we do.
My friend Rabbi Chaim Koncepolski once told me a joke: Misha, why doesn’t a non-Jew keep Kosher?
Me: Because they’re not Jewish.
Chaim: “Ah-a….” (here I like to imagine the old Jew in the barber shop in Coming to America played by Eddie Murphy.)
We practice because we are Jews and our fathers practiced before us. Each nation, each generation creates new fads, new theories, has certainty in new moral codes and diets. Some stay, most fade, some leave deep, evil scars.
Yet we are given rails. We are given small daily acts of connection with our forefathers and with each other. We are endowed with these tools to help us navigate uncertainty.
We do it imperfectly. Each generation renews its traditions in different ways, contributes to the body of knowledge of a people going back thousands of years. We stop and start, strive and sometimes fail. We all share an inheritance, rails through our daily life. We must only practice.
L'Shana Tovah tikatevu
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