Friday, October 08, 2010

Do the rituals require God?

The argument has been made, ineffectively, that performing the rituals becomes ridiculous absent a belief in God. [I believe in God, by the way]

As I've tried to explain, we perform any number of secular rituals in our daily life that aren't connected to any belief in God. (1) We perform these rituals because we see them as significant (for any number of different reasons) or because they provide us with some kind of payoff.

I've argued that religious rituals are performed for the same reasons. (2)

Now a commenter named "Benjamin" has raised an interesting point. He suggests that there is justification in for my argument in the Torah and midrash. As he writes:
Just to clarify here - do people really believe that the Torah is completely nonsensical and ridiculous without God? I feel like it's more common to think otherwise. How does that make sense with lots of things, such as:

A. We have very, very few entirely arbitrary commandments (even if God commanded matza, e.g., it still has communal/historical significance and definite meaning in multiple ways described even by the Torah).
B. The well-known midrash that has God lamenting that if only His people had forgotten Him but kept his Torah - God Himself seems to think it would not be arbitrary to follow [commandments] without Him, according to this midrash.
C. The Torah itself, which claims that upon seeing Judaism in practice, other nations would say, "רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה!"[This nation is nothing but wise and discerning]  - a clear self-description that it believes it is admirable from a third-party perspective.
These are all excellent points. The Torah itself acknowledges that eating matzo, among most other rituals, derives at least some of its value and significance because of the connection it creates between the matzo eater and his community, or the matzo-eater and his ancestors.  Likewise, the Torah itself asserts that Israel will be recognized as wise and discerning, presumably because the act of performing the rituals offers some secular value (3) and the author of the midrash seems to confirm this understanding.

(1) The pledge of allegiance at ball games; a hot cup of cocoa before bed; formal attire; knocking on wood; 4th of July barbecue; setting the table with the fork on the right, and the knife on the left, etc., etc., etc.
(2) If you believe in God, and think obeying Him is important you're performing the act because you find it significant. If you expect a reward, in this life or the next, you're performing the act for the sake of the payoff. All believers in God, Jewish and non-Jewish believers alike, perform rituals for one of these two general reasons.
(3) For instance, the nations will recognize the resting from work is a great idea, not because it makes God happy, or because it offers invisible miztva points, but because they can see tangible real world benefits. This also confirms that the author of the verse (ie God) recognizes that performing the rituals are valuable in of themselves.

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