Ancient Biblical and Talmudic Judaism is heavy on ritual and light on theology. In fact, if you look throughout history, the focus on ritualistic do's and don’ts is one of the things people have liked least about Judaism.
Christianity, which is based on Judaism, did away with most of the rituals and focused on theology instead. Much later, Reform Judaism also stripped Judaism of much of its ritual.
It has been argued that Hasidism also recognized the problem with dry ritual and therefore focused on community, spirituality and a cosmic Kabbalistic theology to enhance the practice of rituals.
For me, however, the fact that Judaism in its native state focuses on “dry ritual” rather than theology is incredibly appealing. Let me explain. (Here I will focus on the benefits of do's and don’ts. In a following article I will discuss why the relative lack of theology makes so much sense).
My mother likes to tell me that as I was about to enter elementary school, the head of the pre-school I attended called her and suggested that I should spend another year in kindergarten. It wasn't my academic performance that the woman was worried about. “Levi is not yet ready for elementary school because he has not yet learned to follow authority,” she explained to my mother gravely. I admit it, listening to authority has never really appealed to me.
Based on this, logic would dictate that I should find ritualistic Judaism with all its do's and don’ts particularly unattractive. Yet I don’t, and here is why: A life without any structured system to keep us disciplined is simply not worth living. A friend of mine recently gave up on all the rituals of Judaism, saying that they were too oppressive – in fact, the form of haredi Judaism he was following is unnecessarily oppressive. I asked him what his new system for being focused and disciplined would be. His answer was one word, “Freedom.”
Yet imagine a life of unbridled freedom. One day you get up at 6 am and the next at noon. You eat as much of anything you want. You buy everything your heart desires. You work only when you feel like it. You fulfill all the physical pleasures available to you. Living like this for any extended period of time will leave you broke, exhausted, morbidly obese, deeply unfulfilled, and spiritually and psychologically damaged.
We all need structure in our lives to remain physically, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically healthy. All dietitians will tell you that a diet can help you lose weight, but to keep the weight off permanently you need to change your habits, and for that you need a structure. The same can be said of every other aspect in life.
Our bad habits are the things that keep us from fulfillment in life. Bad work habits keep us from true productivity. Bad relationship habits destroy our interpersonal relationships. We need to join a system in order to develop good habits and refrain from bad ones. Bookstores are full of self-help books that offer systems to change your life.
Judaism is the system that offers me structure and discipline so that I am able to do the things in life that are truly important and stay away from those things that might be fun for a while, but will impede my ability to live life to the fullest. To me, the rituals are not oppressive, they are freeing. They free me from the clutches of bad habits. The structure they instill in my life gives me the space to pursue the things that are truly important to me.
Nothing and no one forces me to follow these rituals; I choose to because they are good for me. For someone who has a natural aversion to authority, this is an important point. For many, the do's and don’ts of Judaism are seen as rules imposed upon them by some other force, be that a rabbi, parent or God. They therefore resent how Judaism limits their lives.
Conversely, I see the do's and don'ts as a gift from God. With the rituals of Judaism, my Creator, in His infinite kindness, has offered me a full-proof system that allows me to live a life well-lived.
If I need a system to provide structure and discipline to my life, and we all do, this is the one I am going to use. And so far this system works fantastically well for me. I highly recommend it.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions
, a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life