The great French Jewish philosopher and Talmudist Emmanuel Levinas, in his Difficult Freedom (pp. 176 – 177), taught about the power of Jewish ritual to inform and inspire our work to make the world more just, which is of paramount importance. He wrote: “The Justice rendered to the Other, my neighbor, gives me an unsurpassable proximity to God… The pious person is the just person.…For love itself demands justice and my relation with my neighbor cannot remain outside the lines which this neighbor maintains with various third parties. The third party is also my neighbor.” Thus, when we pursue justice in a Jewish way, we come closer to G‑d. This is because “[t]he ritual law constitutes the austere law that strives to achieve justice. Only this law can recognize the face of the Other which has managed to impose an austere role on its true nature…”
This discipline found in religious life through ritual is needed in our daily lives: “The way that leads to God therefore leads … to humankind; and the way that leads to humankind draws us back to ritual discipline and self-education. Its greatness lies in daily regularity…” One cannot rely on an occasional, passive religious service, but on daily ritual. To Levinas, ritual tames man and calms the spirit: “The law is effort. The daily fidelity to the ritual gesture demands a courage that is calmer, nobler and greater than that of the warrior…. The law of the Jew is never a yoke. It carries its own joy…” Far from religion as dour, drudge-like labor, ritual is joyful labor.
We can see this truth in other areas, as well. Social workers have seen the beneficial effects of rituals on youths who have grown up with poverty, domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug addiction, crime, and parents who either abandoned their families or have been incarcerated. Mark Redmond, Executive Director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services, observed: “Rituals, whether religious or not, are vital to family life. Having dinner together every night — without any television, cell phones or e‑mail present — is extremely important. Bedtime rituals are also important. And making a big deal about birthdays and anniversaries and holidays — all important.” These rituals, and religious rituals, provide safety, stability, and purpose to children who otherwise would live in a world of anxiety and hopelessness.
In a similar vein, Levinas argues that the human-Divine relationship formed in ritual gives us the strength to fight for justice: “The fact that the relationship with the Divine crosses the relationship with people and coincides with social justice is therefore what epitomizes the entire spirit of the Jewish bible. Moses and the prophets preoccupied themselves not with the immorality of the soul but with the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.” This human-Divine relationship should not be characterized as “spiritual friendship,” but one “that is manifested, tested and accomplished in a just economy for which each person is fully responsible…” Ritual, therefore, is hopeful, joyful, and necessary to create a just world.
The Jewish sense of slavery, which we return to so frequently in Jewish prayer and ritual, defines our narrative and ethical consciousness. “The traumatic experience of my slavery in Egypt constitutes my very humanity, a fact that immediately allies me to the workers, the wretched and the persecuted peoples of the world. My uniqueness lies in the responsibility I display to the Other…Humankind is called before a form of Judgment and justice that recognizes this responsibility…” Once again, Levinas challenges the view of ritual as insular and passive, recasting it as central in raising our awareness of our commonality with all the poor and vulnerable.
Rituals are non-utilitarian, symbolic acts that involve and promote the cultivation of mindfulness. The transformative power of ritual is achieved when we take the opportunity to explore ourselves, our hearts, and our ideals. We step out of this world to cultivate a meaningful experience and then to return to life changed. This is why we seek to perform ritual on our own and not by proxy. The greatest power of religious ritual, in my view, is the opportunity to deepen awareness about one’s own moral and spiritual values. In ritual, we slow down, refocus on the big picture, and reaffirm our core values. Sometimes we do this in sacred privacy but more often we do it within the spiritual partnership of community.
Levinas reminded us that when we honor the dignity of the other we are also honoring the Other. And when we embrace the Other we are preparing for our work in social justice for the other. May we return to Jewish ritual with fervor and determination, and may we allow its spiritual power to transform us to be agents of love and justice in emulation of the Divine.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!