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3 May 2007

Why bother with ritual?

Why am I religious? Because I'm a hedonist!

By Jeremy Rosen

Amongst the various charges levelled against Judaism is its seeming over preoccupation with ritual. People find it hard to understand its emphasis on doing things, morning noon and night, day in day out, week in week out, throughout the year with its changing seasons and festivities. As if God cares a jot what we eat, what we strap onto our arms or throw over our bodies when we pray, whether we answer telephones on the Sabbath or eat on the Day of Atonement. Of course the question ‘Does God care’ can be asked of anything. Does God care if we pray? I wouldn’t have thought so. But we ourselves might want to and need to. And I believe routines, especially ones that remind us of our ideals and help us create a positive framework for coping with life and all its pressures, are very helpful, even necessary.

What is a religion and why should so many of us seem to want, need or enjoy it? Is religion a matter of beliefs or is religion a way of life? For Jews and Muslims it is much more the latter. We are not Faith communities so much as Proactive Communities. For me intellectual freedom is very important. I don’t want to be told what or how to think. I want to be free to explore and to pick up ideas or theories and savour them and discard them if necessary. I don’t mind suggestions, proposals even propositions but a religion that insists on my believing this or that, makes me very uneasy.

On the other hand as a human I know I am a creature of routines, physical demands and necessities. We all have our silly habits, the way we brush our teeth or our hair or dress or walk or drive. Do the routines of a Gentleman mean anything? Does it matter if I open a car door to a lady or pick my nose in public? Not in the greater scheme things perhaps but it’s a constant reminder to me to think of others.

What do I have in common with every human being? Not thought, philosophy, political affiliation, music or art. No, what connects me are the physical routines of eating, sleeping, working, procreation, even defecation. If I can stop and think before each action, I can feel myself part of a brotherhood of man much more easily than if I look for a common philosophy or theology. I agree of course that behaviour is not enough. We need ideals, mystical experience and to reach out beyond our limitations.

I suspect the founders of Christianity were irked by all the petty rules of Judaism and sought to escape them (and appeal to the Pagan world) by establishing a religion less of restricted practise and more of generalized ideals. And I suspect the founders of Islam looked and saw that the Christianity had gone too far in removing behavioural constraints and patterns and that was why they, like Judaism established a religion in which shariar, halacha, behaviour was the way to translate ideals into action, rather than a complex system of beliefs.

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But we humans have an infinite capacity for picking the chaff and rejecting the kernel. So, one religious group falls back on vague religious sentimentality and the other finds comfort in thoughtless routine. But if I had to choose it would be ‘experience’ anytime. If you ask me why I’m religious I think I’d have to confess that it’s really about being a hedonist. I enjoy it, most of the time. It gives me pleasurable experiences that I am bound to repeat. It gives me a recurring range of senses, sounds, smells and happy moments (usually outside the synagogue I confess and mainly at home). It fills my life with structure in the good sense. None of that would be there without the constant requirement of ritual to do and repeat and to keep it up even when you don’t feel like it.