OUR ATTITUDE TO CEREMONIES
Israel Mattuck, 11 April 1913
From time to time it becomes necessary to speak of what are the less important elements of religion in the hope of coming to a, clearer understanding of the exact place which these elements occupy in the religious life. Such a course may seem to ascribe some importance to them which thus become the subject of our discourse; but I would avoid giving that impression. Especially must we speak of these lesser elements in religion because we are asked for our attitude upon all which has in the name of tradition been accepted as essential to religious life. I have in mind at this moment the matter of ceremonies. We need for ourselves to come to an understanding as to the place which we would ascribe to ceremony, and we must also explain our attitude for the instruction of those who are not one with us- in the matter of religious ideals. A statement of our position in this matter is all the more necessary because of the attitude of traditional Judaism, which attaches to the ceremonial laws as much importance as to the moral and spiritual laws, if we are to judge from the sayings of those teachers who are by traditional Judaism accepted as authoritative.
It is not, however, to be supposed that there exists among Liberal Jews a unanimity of opinion with regard to ceremonies; far from it, for Liberal Judaism requires from its adherents that attitude of mind which is free to pursue the truth and to judge all things according to those standards of truth, and in accordance with their power to make for righteousness. Many may possess this attitude, and yet not agree about other things. Still, in the matter of Synagogal worship we must have some definite policy to which we adhere and which shall be based upon valid reasons.
This question of the place of ceremonies in our religion is not one newly propounded by Liberal Judaism. It is an old question argued first many centuries ago by those great spirits or prophets to whom we are indebted for most of those ideals and principles which constitute the essence of our faith. Amos, Micah, Isaiah and Jeremiah all turned their attention to it, and their position was very much the same. It is stated in that chapter of Jeremiah which I read to you, in which he tells us that there is a transitoriness about the material elements in religion about religious institutions. Even the Temple with all its elaborate ritual was no guarantee for the security of the Jewish state. Was not Shiloh the oldest sanctuary destroyed?
These institutions - the sanctuary and the rites performed there- are comparatively unimportant when compared with the laws of righteousness. These latter laws constitute the Jewish tradition, for he asks, 'Did God command sacrifices to the Israelites at the time of the Exodus'? Did He not rather command them laws of justice which they should obey?
It is a much mooted question how far the prophets' objection to rites went. Did they object to them altogether, or did they only object to the importance which was attached to them, contending against what seemed to be the popular belief of their time that the salvation of the individual or the state depended upon the sacrifices of the Temple. In opposition to this view they sought to emphasise the inner character of true religion, the greatness and importance of righteous conduct.
Liberal Judaism follows these prophets in insisting upon the inner character of religion and follows them in believing that the essential and valuable part of the Jewish tradition is the spirit of trust in God and the spirit of righteousness, that the Jew is a Jew not because of any observances, but because of the piety which fills his heart, because of the devotion to God which controls his life, because of the ideals which guide his actions, and because of the righteousness which impels his will. Yet, though we thus relegate the matter of ceremonies to an inferior position it is not to be supposed that we discard them altogether. We cannot conform to the view that certain ceremonies are to be observed because they are commanded in the laws, - the view that is fundamental to the demand for observance that is made by Traditional Judaism, - nor do we accept the view that a sacramental value attaches to ceremonies, a view current among Christian sects; but we rather accept the view that what ceremonies are observed are to be observed because of the help which they give toward the spiritual life, because of their ability to deepen the piety and to strengthen the devotion to God by sanctifying our lives.
It is safe to say that nearly all Liberal Jews agree that so far as possible the Sabbath and Festivals are to be observed. The reason, however, is not that they are to be observed because the laws command us to observe them; but because we find in them a help, and a great help, toward our spiritual life, and a factor which makes for greater devotion to Judaism, which to us is synonymous with devotion to God.
This principle that ceremonies must be a help to our spiritual life and a factor making for greater devotion to Judaism, supplies us with a standard of judging which ceremonies are appropriate and which not for our present day religious life; whether we are considering those ritual institutions which have come down to us from the past, or whether we are urged to think of the need for newer rites, this one test must be applied. When we do, therefore, apply this test we find in the first place that ceremonies must be simple. By that I mean that their significance must be clear so that he who runs may read. The ceremony that needs elaborate explanation before its meaning is absorbed by the worshippers is from the religious point of view worthless, and I fear less than worthless. It is as if a teacher while instructing the pupils were to use words each of which needed an elaborate definition. The pupils may successfully grasp one or two of the definitions, but they could hardly be expected to get the lesson which the whole was meant to convey. When ceremonies need elaborate explanation they become merely exercised to test the knowledge and the ingenuity of him who observes them, unless they be observed in a sort of blind obedience. They who are mourning because of the death of many of the older Jewish customs are constantly crying aloud, - if Jews only understood them. Yet by that very exclamation they supply the best reason for not mourning, for if they are not understood, and can only be understood by a conscious effort of the intelligence they lose whatever value they may have had as a means for helping the spiritual life.
Simplicity in the matter of ceremonies precludes ornateness. The elaborate frills with which many rites are trimmed chill the spirit of them; weighting them down with tinsel destroys their life. Ornate ceremonies may by their grandeur fasten themselves upon the imagination and for a moment hold it captive, but they cannot touch the heart because the heart loves the language of simplicity; its emotions are stirred and its powers are roused by the pure and the simple. There is, however, the further danger that elaborate ceremonies, because of the artificial trimmings, do beget in the observers a spirit kindred to that which created them, a spirit of artificiality and hollow sham. The heart and the soul in which reside the natural instincts and the natural life of man, in which hope and faith rise simple as the water wells from its spring, and as the light streams from the sun, must express themselves simply and naturally, and must be spoken to by means simple and natural; and their life will suffer if made to flow in grooves and channels constructed by the artificial means invented by the intellect.
It is because ceremonies to possess spiritual or religious value must be simple in this that their meaning shall be evident to all, and that they should be free from any artificiality, that I believe our religion demands for us living in the western countries, the elimination of all that which is emphatically Oriental. I know that this attitude is opposed by many who take great delight in the observance of ancient customs, much as the antiquary rejoices in the dust covered relics of days gone by with which he is surrounded. But the spirit that may charm when seen in the antiquary, may repel when brought into some living and vital issue in life, as religion.
Religion demands that it is the interest and the power of life; therefore, much as we may regret to eliminate some of the transmitted customs, yet, if because of their Orientalism they have no significance in our modern life, they do not naturally express any religious feeling to our hearts, and do not speak plainly and clearly to us of religious ideals, they must be discarded. It was a great leader of Liberal Judaism who said, "Ceremonies in order to imbue the people with a religious spirit and hallow their life must be of an elevating character and be in perfect harmony with their own mode of life, or else lead to superstition bordering on idolatry".
We know only too well how often ceremonies have received what was almost idolatrous worship because their elaborateness or their strange character surrounded them with a glamour that captivated the unhealthy imagination, but prevented them from conveying a truer and better inspiration. See, for example, how some Jews worship the hat, as if all piety was concentrated in the tiny skull-cap.
The author of that verse which says "There is no divination or enchantment in Jacob" did not know of our modern hat-worshippers for whom a special sanctity resides in head-gear which makes prayers acceptable only when uttered when it is worn. The Oriental customs of Judaism must go unless we are prepared to sacrifice spiritual values to an antiquarian enjoyment of useless relics of the past. Their place must be taken by ceremonies that shall speak to us really and forcefully in the language conformable to our modern life, to our modern ideas, and rouse us with their inspiration unto greater devotion and holier living.
It further behoves us to avoid a multitude of ceremonies. We have seen that they are a means to an end, and a multiplication of means does not always conduce to the best end. When there are many ceremonies the tendency is, - it is a natural tendency, - to attach great importance to them; so much so, that their real significance becomes obscured and they are accepted as an end in themselves. There is hardly any need of dilating upon this, or adducing any proof that the multiplication of rites leads to a formalism; it is sufficiently proved by the history of any of the ritualistic religions, and to our sorrow we must say that the history of Judaism during the past centuries offers also sufficient evidence of this truth. A few ceremonies that are helpful in the simplicity and directness of a spiritual appeal are a blessing; a multitude of them becomes a stumbling block.
But while realising the danger that lurks in the matter of ceremonies, we are not unmindful of the blessings which may be derived from them. A small number, well chosen, and flowing naturally from the spirit which expresses itself in it, speaking clearly of the ideas which fill it, becomes at once a help and a source of strength to the spirit. Many such are offered to us by the past, and these may therefore have the additional value of serving as a concrete link in the long chain of continuity, helping to emphasise that subtler but more potent and more valuable chain which evidences itself not in forms nor in institutions, but in the abiding spirit of the heart.
It does not seem necessary to point out exactly what institutions of the past can still serve our religious purpose. In some measure it is the right and the duties of the individual to decide for himself which observances are helpful to him. As a congregation we have already given evidence that the Jewish Holy Days observed in simplicity and in deep appreciation of their sanctity do constitute for us an expression of our unity with the house of Israel, and a help toward the sanctification of our communal life.
The approach of the Feast of Passover, the very ancient institution and one pregnant with meaning for Jews, makes it appropriate that we do at this time consider well our attitude toward such institutions and the minor ones associated with it that we may observe it in the true spirit of Judaism, and that by observing it properly we may derive from it that which it is meant to give, sacred joy, a spirit of devotion, and a spirit of holiness. The homely character of this feast is characteristic of many Traditional Jewish institutions, and it is just here in the home where there is that intimacy infused with holy life, where every little act becomes sanctified by this spirit, where ceremonies become most potent for good if they are properly chosen and properly observed. And they in turn while deriving much of their value and worth because of their association with the home, do in turn strengthen, deepen, and sanctify the spirit of the home by making of it a temple wherein resides God's spirit.
Let me, therefore, plead with you that ye do not look upon ceremonies with the superstitious reverence, nor worship them as a idolatries, but that ye perceive aright the significance or value in them, and be prompted to observe in simplicity and sincerity those which speak naturally and easily to the sentiments that move your hearts, and in turn speak to your hearts. You will then find it easier to transmit the ideals which animate and rouse you to them who are to come after you, for as we are told in the Bible when the various feasts are commanded the reason is that your children may know, so do we find in the well chosen institutions a means, a vessel, in which to convey the soul of the present to the soul of the future, so that the piety of the fathers be not lost among the children, and that the bond which links us to our Judaism be not weakened either by superstition or by Indifference, but that faith and devotion may endure.