The Orthodox Jewish community is often characterized as being obsessively ritualistic, pious and insular. More so than other denominations, our religious practice requires fealty in every area of our lives, from the first words we say when we wake up in the mornings, every morsel of food we consume, the clothes we wear, and the last things we utter before we fall asleep at night.
So why do we do it? Are we constantly living in fear of an overzealous God? Are we mindless zombies following antiquated traditions? Are we in search of divine connection? Or are we, perhaps, just members of a very demanding social club?
I spoke separately with two fellow Modern Orthodox friends last week about the question whether they actually accept the historicity of our religion’s traditional narratives — in this case, the story of Purim.
The first responded, “It doesn’t really matter” — suggesting that perhaps he didn’t really believe the story in the Book of Esther. Sensing that, I took it up a notch: “Why do you engage in the traditional conduct associated with Purim, then?” His answer struck (and resonated with) me: “It’s like belonging to a club. If you belong to a club, you do those things consistent with the club’s membership.” A club member or fraternity brother wears a jacket, a cap, a pin. We wear a yarmulke — part of the club’s identity rituals.
The other friend, however, seemed to be of a totally different mind. A more spiritual person — he is a lay lecturer and teacher of Scripture — he expressed the view that those who attend synagogue do so because they seek “a relationship with God.” Having myself accepted the somewhat pragmatic club membership theory, which might suggest hypocrisy on the part of our members (myself included), I challenged him on his heartening hypothesis. I questioned whether many, or even most, who engage in the unbending rituals of religion do so mechanically, somewhat mindlessly. Why do many of us pray in Hebrew even if we don’t actually understand the words?
Finally, I wondered aloud whether it is more so that newcomers to religious observance seek that “relationship” than those who have “been there, done that” all of their lives. My friend seemed shocked, although my follow-up questions did seem to modify the certainty of his view. By the time that conversation ended, he more or less conceded that the less technically observant were perhaps in search of an affirmative relationship with God more than those who, in a sense, were “already on board”; those who were taught (required) as children to observe as their parents did.
For sure, observant Jews do indeed belong to a club. We pray in unison, and our prayers are typically formulaic and speak in terms of “us” — forgive us, heal us, give us intelligence. We perform religious observances together. In the case of many of us, if we are totally truthful, we perform them because we are concerned about how our deficiencies in observance may be viewed by our peers and not necessarily because we are worried we will offend God Himself.
Perhaps many of us don’t actively seek a relationship with God, because in some sense we don’t need to — we already have it. Some of us, maybe many of us, are ritually-obsessed in terms of the things we do or refrain from doing, but actively seeking a relationship with God is not something in our daily consciousness. By virtue of the continuity of our religious life, we are already internally imbued with that “relationship.”
What “relationship” might mean in this context may be different for each of us. Some of us actually talk to God — literally talk to God. Some simply hope He’s listening. Some know that He’s there in some way, and have faith that He’ll do “the right thing.” They have that relationship, and maybe do all that they do to keep the relationship intact. They don’t seek — they aren’t in search of — a relationship with God. It’s simply there, and may always have been for them.
Maybe, for some, God is in a cloud; a “force” who is with one; a grandfatherly-looking figure who always looks for the good in each of us. Or maybe the opposite — He (or perhaps not even a “He”) is a critical mass demanding that we comply with the ritualistic aspects and belief systems that describe or articulate God’s engagement with mankind.
While I was initially put off by the phrase “club” being used to describe how those who are observant might relate to God, I was likewise troubled by the idea that it really doesn’t matter if we believe in the historical accuracy of those events that comprise the apparatus of the religion. But maybe, whether the Book of Esther (or any other narrative, for that matter) indeed happened is not as important as the fact that these events help bind us together in that so-called “club,” allowing us to connect to God as a social order (a society) composed of like-minded believers that wouldn’t happen if we didn’t share these stories (these events, if you will).
That like-mindedness may be what reinforces our belief in God, making the existence of life itself an easier row to hoe.