How Worship Might Shape Our Minds

Tzav By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Mar 22, 2008 / 5768 | Torah Commentary | Prayer

A phrase in the remarkable book by anthropologist Mary Douglas, Leviticus as Literature, caught my attention this week and would not let go. Douglas, as she has done for decades, reveals the exquisite meaning stored in Leviticus’s laws, concerning exactly which parts of which animals were to be slaughtered on the altar, in what order and in what fashion, and how these parts were to be eaten by which Israelites and/or offered up in smoke to the Lord. Even after years of probing Leviticus for insight, and each year finding more significance in the book’s attempt to sanctify everyday experience, I found myself captured by Douglas’s description of the Levitical system of animal offerings as “philosophizing by sacrifice.” She writes: “Not only in ancient Israel, but in many parts of the world, philosophizing by sacrifice can be quite paradoxical and abstruse.”

Leviticus is abstruse—complex, detailed, mysterious—because life is like that, and the book seeks to be adequate to life’s complexities. It is paradoxical because it brings us face-to-face with issues of life and death, indeed hopes to sustain life by means of the deaths of countless animals. The Israelites learned, as they presented with their own hands the various parts of the animals to be sacrificed at the altar, what is perhaps the most basic truth taught about human life by our tradition: we too are animals (high-school biology still teaches this, of course, and bodily desire confirms it, though we often prefer to forget), but that we are also far more than animals (this biology classes will not teach, and secular culture denies at every turn). The Torah insists that we were created on the same sixth day as the animals, but had the spirit of God breathed into us so that we could serve as God’s partners in the world. And, if Douglas is right, the lesson was not taught in words (no priestly sermons are recorded in Leviticus), but in the facts, gestures, spaces, and silences of sacrifice.

What about us? I wondered. How does contemporary worship in the synagogue direct our thinking? What philosophy of Jewish human beings does our mode of worship express? Do our services speak in one voice on important life and death matters? Indeed, do they speak to us on these issues at all? Four comparisons with the tabernacle suggest themselves at once:

1. Even before a single animal was brought to the altar at the very center of their camp, the Israelites described by Leviticus knew that they approached God, not as individuals or as human beings in general, but as a unique and integral community. They had suffered slavery and persecution together, and cherished memories of liberation. They were joined, as well, by common purpose and shared covenantal obligation. The Israelites were prepared to have thinking shaped by the symbolic medium of sacrifice, because they were connected to one another outside their tabernacle, joined in profound and tangible ways that were not at all symbolic. Their offerings grew out of this identity and served to strengthen it.

Today, most Jews who come to synagogue come only rarely—once a week at most. The bonds that join them outside the synagogue are attenuated or broken. Our Jewish identity is hyphenated rather than whole. Jewish activity is generally episodic and marginal, rather than constant or central. Many stimuli flood our brains; many kinds of activities engage us. The ability of any one institution to shape or direct us is limited.

I have no nostalgia for ghetto or shtetl. I treasure our individual freedoms. But I am convinced that the weakness of Jewish group life has reduced our ability to pray together.

2. Our ancestors constructed the space in which their sacrifices were offered. They built it with their own hands, using materials that they willingly provided. Women and men together—itself a remarkable event in the context of the Torah’s narrative—cut wood and wove fabric. Entering the tabernacle, they savored the experience of a dream come true.

We too get to experience this if we have been involved in the founding of a synagogue or prayer group; we get a sense of it at moments of rededication, such as the celebration of new construction or the hiring of a new rabbi or the observance of a momentous anniversary. At such times we do not simply walk in the door and settle into business as usual, but we think deeply again about purpose and meaning. We remember what it is to imagine possibilities and see them come to pass.

3. Our parashah emphasizes that collective participation in the rite of sacrifice became intensely personal when worship reached its climax at the altar: “The offering…must be presented by him who offers his sacrifice of well-being to the Lord; his own hands shall present the Lord’s gifts (7:29-30). “I suspect even sacrifice became routine after a while. Everything does. Keva is the enemy of kavanah. Even with the sound and smell of animals under the knife, there were probably Israelites who yawned and wished for variety.

There is too much yawning in our synagogues, and too little variety. Some of our sanctuaries seem designed to discourage participation. They are huge, cold, and impersonal. The action on the bimah is far away. The congregation becomes audience to the action, and the air is further deadened by routine. Congregants feel marginal and isolated. Rote choreography—stand up, sit down—increases that sense if motions, like words, are not explained. Why do we do this? Because our ancestors did? The answer increasingly fails to satisfy.

Other synagogues pulse with life, movement, and song. Torah discussions provoke thought and elicit conversation. Participation is high. Rabbis are thanked for explaining words or gestures. Congregants are fully involved. They leave services energized and feeling less alone. They have joined in tradition and community. Their sense of God’s presence in the world has been enhanced.

4. Leviticus places the tabernacle at the very center of the camp, and the Torah gives Israel a mandate to sanctify all of life in that camp—and beyond it—the way they have just been sanctified through worship. The “holiness code” makes it clear that social justice is an integral part of what God wants from Israel. Sacrifice is always a means, never an end. The order of the mishkan and the order of the camp are the center from which Israel is to go forth and help order all the world. The forms of worship remind them of what they are meant to do and why.

Our services also increase in power and effectiveness—and the ability to shape our thinking—when they follow from and lead to communal activity outside the synagogue. Shabbat should not be the only day of the week that matters in our shuls. Our synagogues work best when they house far more than worship. Jews, who become part of the community outside shul, pray and learn better inside.

We too “philosophize” through worship, I believe, but all too often the thinking provoked by our synagogues is not the kind that can elevate us or help us to remake the world. That is a great shame. We find ourselves together in worship week after week, often sitting and standing in beautiful spaces that we have come to love, wrapped up in words and music that have lifted Jews up for centuries. The experience can lift us too, if we make the most of the chance to be “alone together” with one another and with God. It is amazing what a real community can accomplish when it sets its mind to it—especially when that mind is shaped by worship that focuses them on the work that really matters.