Transcending “Soulless Piety”

Ki Tissa By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 2, 2002 / 5762 | Torah Commentary

Writing in the week of my father’s yahrzeit, I am drawn to reflect again on some of the spiritual heirlooms he left behind. One of my favorites is the piquant term “soulless piety” which he coined to describe an all too common phenomenon that results when ritual observance loses its emotional charge and we find ourselves just going through the motions. Judaism is a religion predicated on behavior rather than belief; compliance outranks spontaneity in its scale of values. Ritual acts mark the rhythm of our daily lives. But what are we to do when we find our inner state and outer actions out of sync? Soulless piety is what remains when ritual has become utterly routinized. From an external perspective we are complying, but deep down we are disengaged and unsatisfied. We know that “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

The dead weight of lifeless religion is graphically portrayed in a daring midrash on the narrative of this week’s parashah. Moses tarries atop Mount Sinai too long. In his absence, the Israelites demand of Aaron, their priest, a visible and permanent symbol of God’s presence in their midst. From their gold jewelry, Aaron casts a molten calf, proclaiming, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (32:4). Relieved, the Israelites celebrate with sacrifices, feasting and dancing. The scene dismays God who is ready to abandon “this stiffnecked people” 32:9), except for the persuasive intercession of Moses.

But when Moses descends and actually witnesses the raucous revelry, he turns prosecutor. His anger matches God’s: “As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (32:19). The stark reality of human inconstancy overwhelms the moment of divine revelation.

Ever close readers, the Rabbis were not satisfied with the surface meaning of the text. There was more to Moses’s uncommanded act than raw anger. What did Moses think as he smashed the tablets? Some detected an admixture of compassion. As long as the tablets of the law went undelivered, the Israelites could not be held liable for their behavior. Moses stopped short of transmitting them because he suddenly realized that the norms of the Torah far exceeded the people’s capacity to heed them. Still more empathetic is a medieval midrash to the effect that Moses was overcome with despair. Made of stone, the two tablets were indeed heavy. Yet as long as they bore the inscriptions etched by God, they transported themselves and Moses along with them. But once they caught sight of the drums and dancing around the calf, the holy letters fled their stone setting and reascended to heaven, leaving Moses to carry the denuded stones on his own. Helpless, he threw them to the ground (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, chapter 45).

The tablets serve the author of this midrash as a screen on which to project Moses’s state of mind. The image of the letters returning to whence they came signaled failure. The deal was off. Israel had shown incontrovertibly that it was unsuited to elevating humanity by being God’s chosen people. Moses had risked his life in vain. Or were the receding letters meant to convey only that revelation was not a consummation? Progress in the transformation of human character from slave to citizen, from beast to human, takes place slowly and unevenly, ever subject to disheartening reversals. Miracles prove effective only in the short run. Bereft of their inscriptions, the stones fell like a golem unredeemed by spirit.

As such, the image of tablets whose words have taken flight becomes a vivid symbol for the state of soulless piety. How burdensome are rituals that no longer speak to us, that we perform out of habit, duty or filial piety long after their meaning has evaporated! The loss may come from opposite directions, from too little practice or too much, from ignorance or routine. Ritual rests on repetitiveness. That is why we prefer the seder to Shabbat or to daily prayer. The less frequent the event, the more meaningful and the less taxing. But there is much in Judaism, like prayer, that comes around on a daily and weekly basis. Ritual punctuates our life with moments of holiness. It is the language in which we communicate with God, the bridge that enables us to live in two worlds at the same time. If we discard it like dead weight, our lives go untouched by God’s grace.

The road to transcendence is not a sudden epiphany but the drudgery of routine. Spontaneity erupts from regularity. To encounter God we first need to develop a relationship with God. The Siddur is a launching pad with a long countdown. As we work to master the skills of praying Jewishly, we need to cultivate the mental disposition that infuses the mechanical with the spiritual. The Mishnah, which insists that we shrink our egos before we reach out to God, reports that the early mystics would ready their minds for an hour before they started to pray. Our concentration should be of such a magnitude that even the greeting of a king or the presence of a snake would go unnoted (Berakhot 5:1).

Each of us must develop our own techniques to keep the danger of spiritual numbness at bay. I find davening with a minyan especially invigorating. The religious energy generated by the community often fills my own depleted tank. Standing while I pray and singing many of the words softly enlist my whole being in the quest for God’s nearness. Satisfaction in praying does not come passively. With fluency we gain options, either to delve into the words for new meaning or to divest them of all meaning as we sail beyond language to another realm. When intellectually inclined, I settle for the former; when mystically inclined, I do the latter. The empty words become the vehicles of expression for my own deeply felt needs.

Above all, we should be mindful of the principle enunciated by the sages of Yavneh not long after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans: “It matters not if we pray a lot or a little, as long as our hearts are firmly fixed on God” (BT Berakhot 17a).

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Ki Tissa are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld