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    The Passover festival & the need for ritual

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 18 April 2019.

    The festival of Passover appeals to perhaps every Jew.

    People who are never seen in synagogue ― except, perhaps, for weddings and funerals ― and who follow few if any of the regular practices of Judaism, somehow find themselves involved ― however grudgingly ― in Passover observances and even secretly enjoy them.

    Maybe it’s nostalgia, the recollection of the Passover foods, stories and songs. Maybe it’s because on Passover the family always got together and despite the occasional squabbles derived pleasure from the cross-generational company.

    It’s not the synagogue services that attracts them, but the evening home celebration known as the Seder (“order” or “procedure”).

    The deeper philosophical meaning escapes many people ― the Passover concepts of freedom of action and thought, the messianism that derives from history and feels the pull of destiny ― but the true appeal of the Seder is the comfort that comes of fitting into a ritual.

    The Seder is proof that human beings can’t live without ritual ― be it religious, sporting, professional or whatever. There is ritual at a sports match; ritual in court or in Parliament; ritual at the doctor’s or dentist’s or in hospital; ritual at a university lecture or debate; ritual, especially, in religion.

    Even in a rather secular age, and even in Australia which has been called “the most godless place on earth,” religion still has a hold, largely because of its ritual ― what some call the church’s “bells and smells.” People laugh at religious pomp and pretensions and even say that ecclesiastical robes look like the Queen of the May, but secretly they would miss the ceremonies if everything became drab and uncolourful.

    Those who oppose rituals and ceremonies, as the British rabbi and spiritual leader of the St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London, Solomon Goldman, once said, misunderstand the nature of human beings:

    If man were a completely rational being, guided and living by purely rational and moral impulses, then the (anti-ritual) argument might be valid, but man has body, senses, imagination, memory and feelings as well as reason. He is a creature of habit and associations as well as of logical motives. If a religion is to appeal to the whole of man it must satisfy his search for the picturesque and colourful, the beautiful, the stimulating, as well as the search for the true and the good.

    Defending the role of ritual in religion, Goldman went on:

    Religion is something more than an intellectual awareness of God, plus righteous living. Religion demands constant effort to get closer and closer to God, to achieve, as far as human beings can, a form of spiritual union with the divine. And religious exercises and symbols are important elements in achieving and maintaining such a sense of closeness.

    Ritual became entrenched in ancient cultures. The ceremonies featuring dead and revived gods symbolised the ebb and flow of the forces of nature and earthly history.

    There was a time when the “Myth and Ritual” scholars attempted to denigrate the religion of ancient Israel, but the Jewish biblical tradition refused to let itself be belittled and developed a pattern of rituals which gave credit to God as the Master of history and invested the biblical stories with ethical components that not only commemorated but inspired.

    Hence Passover looked at all three tenses ― the past, present and future.

    It internalised the past ― saying, “In every generation a person must regard themselves as if they themselves had been freed from bondage in Egypt.”

    It enriched the present ― saying, “It is our duty to keep the rhythm going.”

    It brought the future within grasp ― saying, “The way to bring about the future redemption is by acts of charity to the poor, love for the stranger and justice for the victim.”

    None of this is mere talk. It is ritualised. The critic might say it is play-acted. Whatever verbal judgment one uses, the fact is that these rituals clothe the ideals that create a just society. At the same time, they enhance one’s life and appeal to one’s heart.

    Back to Solomon Goldman. Speaking of Judaism, he said:

    However true it is of other religions that there must be a place in them for symbolism, it is still more true of Judaism, because Judaism is a way of life, a culture, a civilisation. It legislates not only for worship and morals, but for the whole living; and as such it must employ all the means of creating in its adherents habits, associations and disciplines of life.

    Religion without ritual would be dry and disembodied, lacking personality, colour, excitement and symbolism. Indeed, if rituals did not exist, they would need to be invented.

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