The Hallowing of Life (Judaism)

Reference: Judaism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

The basic manual for the hallowing of life is this Law, the first five books of the Bible, the Torah.

Up to this point in our effort to enter the Jewish perspective, we have been dealing with ideas as these occurred to the Jews in their struggle to make sense out of life. As an entrance to Judaism this serves a purpose, for ideas have a universality that makes them intelligible even to outsiders. We have reached a point, however, where (if we are to move deeper into the understanding of this faith) we must table further consideration of Jewish ideas and look at Jewish practices.

A deeper understand of Jewish faith comes from Jewish practices rather than from Jewish ideas.

We must consider Jewish ceremonies and observances, for it is generally agreed that Judaism is less an orthodoxy than an orthopraxis; Jews are united more by what they do than by what they think. One evidence of this is that Jews have never promulgated an official creed that must be accepted to belong to this faith. Observance, on the other hand—the circumcision of males, for example—is decisive. This emphasis on practice gives Judaism something of an oriental flavor; for whereas the West, influenced by the Greek partiality for abstract reason, emphasizes theology and creed, the East has approached religion through ritual and narrative. The difference is between the abstract and the concrete. Does Plato or Dostoevsky get closer to reality? Is love better expressed through words or an embrace?

Jews are united more by what they do than by what they think. This emphasis on practice gives Judaism something of an oriental flavor.

Before turning to Jewish ritual as such, it will be well to speak briefly of ritual in general, for despite its place in every religion we have thus far not addressed it directly. From a narrowly rational or utilitarian point of view, ritual is nonsense, a waste any way we look at it. All that money lavished on candles, cathedrals, prayer books, and incense; all the time spent in worship and sacrament; all the energy that goes into rising up and sitting down, kneeling and prostration, circumambulation and singing—to what end? It isn’t cost effective, we say. Moreover, it has about it an arbitrariness that makes it almost incomprehensible from the outside. A popular magazine carries a photograph of a chief-of-state rubbing noses with an Eskimo. To Eskimos rubbing noses is a friendship ritual. To us it’s simply funny.

From a narrowly rational or utilitarian point of view, rituals, in general, are nonsense.

Yet with all its arbitrariness and seeming waste, ritual plays a part in life that nothing else can fill, a part that is by no means confined to religion. For one thing, it eases us through tense situations and times of anxiety. Sometimes the anxiety is mild—during introductions, for example. I am introduced to a stranger. Not knowing how he or she will respond, I don’t know how to proceed. What should I say? What should I do? Ritual covers my uncertainty and awkwardness. It tells me to extend my hand and say “How do you do?” or “I’m pleased to meet you.” And in so doing it brings form out of chaos. It provides the moment I need to get my bearings. The awkwardness is over. I have recovered my balance and am ready to explore freer behavior.

Like postulates, rituals also provide some stability to ease us through tense situations and times of anxiety. 

If we need ritual to help us through situations as inconsequential as a casual introduction, how much more when we find ourselves really at a loss. Death is the glaring example. Stunned by tragic bereavement, we would founder completely if we were thrown on our own and had to think our way through the ordeal. This is why death, with its funerals and memorial services, its wakes and sitting shiva, is the most ritualized rite of passage. Ritual, with its prepared score to orchestrate the occasion, channels our actions and feelings at a time when solitude would be unbearable. And in the process it softens the blow. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”—the words don’t say whose ashes, for this is everybody; all of us. Ritual also rouses courage: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” Finally, ritual sets death in perspective, connecting this particular death with its universal archetype. The deceased takes his or her place in the company of humankind, one step in the endless march of life into death and death into life again, with the continuum stretching both ways toward eternity.

Death, with its funerals and memorial services, its wakes and sitting shiva, is the most ritualized rite of passage. 

From the triviality of an introduction to the trauma of death, ritual smooths life’s transitions as perhaps nothing else can. But it also serves another function. In times of happiness it can intensify experience and raise joy to celebration. Here the examples are birthdays, weddings, and most simply a family’s evening meal. Here, in this best meal of the day, when perhaps for the first time the family is relaxed and together, a blessing can be something more than the starting line for a food race. It can hallow the occasion. The opposite of dead weight, it consecrates a daily pleasure.

Rituals like birthdays, weddings, and most simply a family’s evening meal, can intensify experience and raise joy to celebration.

Against these background observations concerning the place of ritual in life generally, we turn now to its place in Judaism, where it aims to hallow life—ideally, all life. The nineteenth chapter of Leviticus capsules the point when God says to Moses, “You shall be holy for I, your God, am holy!” What does holiness involve? To many moderns the word is empty; but those who feel the stir of wonder and can sense the ineffable pressing in on their lives from every side will know what Plato was talking about when he wrote, “First a shudder runs through you, and then the old awe creeps over you.” Those who have had such experiences will know the blend of mystery, ecstasy, and the numinous, which received classic description in Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy.

Rituals in Judaism aim to hallow life—to honor it as holy— to feel the awe of ineffable creeping over you.

To speak of the hallowing of life in Judaism is to refer to its conviction that all life down to its smallest element can, if rightly approached, be seen as a reflection of the infinite source of holiness, which is God. The name for this right approach to life and the world is piety, carefully distinguished from piosity, its counterfeit. In Judaism piety prepares the way for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth: the time when everything will be redeemed and sanctified and the holiness of all God’s creation will be transparently evident.

The hallowing of life in Judaism is to refer to its conviction that all life down to its smallest element can, if rightly approached, be seen as a reflection of the infinite source of holiness, which is God. 

The secret of piety consists in seeing the entire world as belonging to God and reflecting God’s glory. To rise in the morning on seeing the light of a new day, to eat a simple meal, to see a stream running between mossy stones, to watch the day slowly turn into evening—even small things like these can mirror God’s majesty. “To the religious man,” writes Abraham Heschel, “it is as if things stood with their backs to him, their faces turned to God.” To accept the good things of life, most of which come to us quite apart from our own efforts, as if they were matters of course without relating them to God, is quite wrong. In the Talmud to eat or drink without first making a blessing over the meal is compared to robbing God of his property. Through all Judaism runs this double theme: We should enjoy life’s goodness, and at the same time we should augment this joy by sharing it with God, just as any joy we feel is augmented when shared with friends. Jewish law sanctions all the good things of life—eating, marriage, children, nature, while elevating them all to holiness. It teaches that people should eat, that they should prepare their tables in the presence of the Lord. It teaches that people should drink, that they should use wine to consecrate the Sabbath. It teaches that people should be merry, that they should dance around the Torah. 

Through all Judaism runs this double theme: We should enjoy life’s goodness, and at the same time we should augment this joy by sharing it with God, just as any joy we feel is augmented when shared with friends. 

If we ask how this sense of the sanctity of all things is to be preserved against the backwash of the world’s routine, the Jew’s chief answer is: through tradition. Without attention, the human sense of wonder and the holy will stir occasionally, but to become a steady flame it must be tended. One of the best ways to do this is to steep oneself in a history that cries aloud of God’s providential acts and mercy in every generation. Against those who would throw the past away with both hands that they may grasp the present more firmly, Judaism accounts the memory of the past a priceless treasure. The most historically minded of all the religions, it finds holiness and history inseparable. In sinking the roots of their lives deep into the past, the Jews draw nourishment from events in which God’s acts were clearly visible. The Sabbath eve with its candles and cup of sanctification, the Passover feast with its many symbols, the austere solemnity of the Day of Atonement, the ram’s horn sounding the New Year, the scroll of the Torah adorned with breastplate and crown—the Jew finds nothing less than the meaning of life in these things, a meaning that spans the centuries in affirming God’s great goodness to God’s people. Even when Jews recall their tragedies and the price their survival has exacted of them, they are vividly aware of God’s sustaining hand. “To live by the Law,” writes a recent Jewish philosopher, “is to live within time the life of eternity.”

The human sense of wonder and the holy must be tended constantly by steeping oneself in a history that cries aloud of God’s providential acts and mercy in every generation. 

The basic manual for the hallowing of life is this Law, the first five books of the Bible, the Torah. When in the traditional synagogue service the time comes for returning the Torah to the Ark, the people recite a line from the Book of Proverbs: “It is a tree of life to those who grasp it.” There is meaning in this simile, for a tree is symbolic of life itself, of the miracle whereby inert elements of sun and rain and soil are drawn into the mystery of growth. So, too, for the Jews, the Torah. It too is a creative power that can elicit and sustain holiness in the lives of those whose flowering world would otherwise become dry stones. “It is a tree of life to those who grasp it.”

The basic manual for the hallowing of life is this Law, the first five books of the Bible, the Torah.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments

  • Gene Trujillo  On December 24, 2022 at 12:48 AM

    Hi Vinay! I am no expert myself in Jewish mysticism but I have been interested in it so studying it for a while because there is way more to it than I initially thought.

    The first five books “of Moses” are what was given to the unwashed masses. Another story is that when Moses descended from the mountain from his visitation with the entity of the burning bush in addition to the written tradition he brought with him a secret oral tradition that was only passed down to high level initiates like his brother Aaron.

    It was eventually written down (n the 1100s or so) in the form of the Zohar, one of the foundational works of Jewish mysticism known as the Ka Ba La (which contains two of the words that the Egyptians used to describe aspects of the human soul).

    The deeper, less known Jewish mystical tradition of the Ka Ba La includes for instance the Chakras. The Tree Of Life is not a physical tree but a metaphor for the human connection between the spiritual and the physical, which includes the chakras being where the physical and spiritual connect, and the human ability/limit of experiencing the manifestation of the holy.

    At their highest levels the Jews don’t believe in an old man sitting on a throne as God. The actual creator god has aspects of masculine and feminine and the Tree of Life is the method through which humans can experience the manifestation of said god.

    • vinaire  On December 24, 2022 at 4:10 AM

      Thank you Gene. Hinduism and Judaism are the two most ancient cultures that interest me the most. They are more than religion for they present a way of life. I would like to delve in Jewish mysticism too. Thanks for your contribution.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: