Authoritarian religion can sometimes debilitate the spirit


Exodus 35:1-38:20

I Kings 7:40-50

I Samuel 20:18, 42

What should an individual do if he were to drop a Torah? "Fast for 40 days" is the typical reply.

Although there is no basis in Jewish law for this kind of penitence, nevertheless, Jews typically believe in such an impossible form of absolution. Rabbis are asked a variety of comparable questions on Jewish law and lore: Should a Jew continue a fast on Yom Kippur if he accidentally, thoughtlessly eats or drinks? If a Shabbat candle goes out, should one relight it? May a Jew name a child after a living relative? May the groom see the bride before the wedding ceremony? (The best answers are: yes, no, yes and no, yes.)

Often individuals are convinced that there is only one way to properly way observe Jewish law — their way! Rabbi Richard Block illustrates the emotional investment some people expend in observing ritual and custom the "right" way.

An angry congregant once confronted him because the shofar had been sounded when Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, contrary to strict Jewish law. The rabbi explained that while there is a halachic (legal) basis for the practice of not sounding the shofar on Shabbat, not to do so in a congregation that celebrated only one day of Rosh Hashanah would seriously diminish the observance of the holiday for many worshippers.

In response the man angrily shouted, "Rabbi, you have completely ruined the holiday!"

At this, the rabbi lost patience and responded, "You must be a very devout Shabbat observer. Tell me, where do you normally spend the day?"

He replied, "On the golf course." For a moment the rabbi thought that he had the man, but the man continued, "What difference does that make? I am nothing! I am just an ordinary sinner! You are a rabbi! You have no right to desecrate the Sabbath!"

This week's Torah portion, Vayakhel, describes excruciatingly fastidious ancient priestly rituals and accoutrements, the design of the tabernacle and its furnishings, including the ark, table, lamp stand, altar, laver and enclosure:

"Of the blue, purple and crimson yarns they also made the service vestments for officiating in the sanctuary; they made Aaron's sacral vestments — as the Lord had commanded Moses. The ephod [upper garment] was made of gold, blue, purple and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen. They hammered out sheets of gold and cut threads to be worked into designs among the blue, the purple, and the crimson yarns, and the fine linen. They made for it attaching shoulder-pieces; they were attached at its two ends. The decorated band that was upon it was made like it, of one piece with it; of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen — as the Lord had commanded Moses. They bordered the lazuli stones with frames of gold, engraved with seal engravings of the names of the sons of Israel. They were set on the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the Israelites — as the Lord had commanded Moses" (Exodus 39:1-6).

Vayakhel's emphasis on ritual perfectionism bids a reader to examine the rationale for such requirements. Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna offers an explanation for these endless descriptions: "God's unity and perfection were intended to be apprehended through the aesthetic form of the structure."

Understanding God through ritual requirements may be one thing, but the author of the Midrash Tahnuma (IV, 35), believed that unattainable absolute perfectionism in worship and ritual also can be debilitating. Describing the creation of the world and the sanctuary, he commented: "Behold the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee, how much less this sanctuary that we are to build Thee?" (I Kings 8:27.) God comforted him with these words: "I shall not ask what is due Me, but only that which I can fulfill."

Eric Fromm defined authoritarian and humanistic religion as a way to understand the tension between ritual perfection and human capabilities. Authoritarian religion, based on obedience and reverence, has "a right to force man to worship Him and that lack of reverence and obedience constitutes sin."

Humanistic religion, he writes, "is centered around man and his strength…Man's aim in humanistic religion is to achieve the greatest strength, not the greatest powerlessness; virtue is self-realization, not obedience. The prevailing mood is that of joy, while the prevailing mood in authoritarian religion is that of sorrow and guilt. Inasmuch as humanistic religions are theistic, God is a symbol of man's own powers which he tries to realize in his life, and is not a symbol of force and domination, having power over man."

The biblical author suggested resolution of the conflict between law and practice: "The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mount and Moses went up" (Exodus 19:20). It is the hope that in God's descent and in our ascent it is possible to discover ritual practice that is satisfying but not overpowering.