Why is Jewish ritual so complicated?

Rise. Take three steps backwards – one with each of the first three words in Hebrew. Take three steps forward with each of the next three words in Hebrew. Bend your knee with the word “Blessed,” bow with the word “You” and stand up straight with the word “God.” Continue singing words of prayer, bowing at the allotted times, rising at the allotted times, carefully pronouncing each word – all the while racing through prayers and melodies, like familiar paths through a corn maze, which never seems exactly the same twice. Affirm relationship with God. Choose your theologically preferred language about the messianic era. Call forth a blessing for rain or dew in the Holy Land, depending on the time of year. Make requests of God – if it’s not Shabbat, when God also needs rest. Pray silently, filling just the right amount of time with prayers of the heart. Return to communal prayer with melodious aspirations for peace. Oh yes – and do all this while wearing a prayer shawl and/or phylacteries, if it is the designated day and time of day, and is your custom. All of this in hopes of resembling the angels and mirroring an anthropomorphic human projection of a God who might also don these sacred objects.

To say that we are a liturgical tradition or one that prizes intricate ritual would be a vast understatement. Every word, every movement, every person present (or absent) is part of a living work of sacred art, which we co-create again and again together – whether or not at the allotted times each day, each week, each month, each year. We build our rituals together and allow them to dissipate again and again and again, day after day, year after year, century after century of accretion and co-creation.

Every communally specific step, every more widespread tradition, and every innovation which we claim to be: ”traditional” is laden with theological, covenantal meaning, storytelling, and the transmission of wisdom. It is a Jewish sand mandala, stunning in its beauty, bafflingly intricate in its construction, and difficult to co-create without careful study and thousands of hours of practice.

These notions are not new – but are mirrored in more ancient precursors to prayer. We read of them in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shmini (Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47), and the meticulous and detailed prescriptions for priestly sacrifice and communal rituals of connection to God. Line by line, particular by particular, care heaped upon care for each and every aspect. We might not understand the sacrificial norms of the day, but we can appreciate the layers of careful process, attended to assiduously.

Tragically, two of Aaron’s children seem to miss the artistry of ritual – or perhaps willfully ignore it. They instead create their own ritual, or one of simplistic mimicry. We read in Leviticus 10:1,

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them.

There is no way, with words alone, that one can speak of this tragedy or any involving the loss of a child. My own response is to sublimate the tidal wave of emotion by reading this passage as allegory. As an allegory, it may be seen as one of several keys in the Torah to understanding some of the intricacies of Jewish ritual.

Until we witness it, we cannot describe it.

Until we describe it, we cannot attempt it.

Until we attempt it, we cannot practice it.

Until we practice it, we cannot lead it.

Even then, we might not understand it. But we can admire it and find a love for it.

The beauty of prayer resides in its intricacy. We cannot replace it with our own musings, even our own well-thought-out words and homespun rituals. But we can add to it once we practice it and come to know it deeply within our bodies, minds, and memories.

Perhaps within the tragedy of this week’s Torah portion resides a reminder that prayer is an art form – and one which we should carefully study and practice if we are to comprehend even a modicum of its power.

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