Religion and “Things”

December 16, 2008

“No, what bothers her is an ancient Presbyterian mistrust of things, things getting mixed up in religion.  The black sweater  and the ashes scandalize her.  Her eyelids lower — she almost winks.  What have these things, articles, to do with doing right?  For she mistrusts the Old Church’s traffic in things, sacraments, articles, bread, wine, salt, oil, water, ashes.”

–Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins

The two comments I recall from Hebrew school about conversion to Judaism are my rabbi theorizing about why more women than men convert (it has to do with the mohel and scissors), and that, in her experience, Catholics had an easier time adjusting than Protestants.  They were already used to ritual trappings; the change was from one type to another, not from absence to presence.

The ritual, for me, is key.  Through years of on-again, off-again faith and various spates of being somewhat “lapsed” (if you can have a lapsed Jew at all), I stuck with various bits of the ritual: no meat and dairy, no shellfish, no pork; wear a tallis when you pray; to your tippy-toes three times during the Kedusha, etc.  To an extent, Tevye shouting, “Tradition!” is perfectly reasonable; I’d rather he be able to explain the origins of the tradition, but mostly because I wish I myself were better able to speak with some authority.  The ritual is why I prefer more traditional to less traditional, and why I’ve come to sing along with all of the Aleinu despite my original (and, to a noticeable degree, still present) discomfiture about the content of the prayer: it is what Jews have said since, more or less, shortly after the Crusades.

So why the ritual and — just as important but more pertinent to the original topic — the ritual object?  The candles, the bread, the wine, the tallisim all ground us in the present and the physical world.  I think it’s best explained by the portion of the siddur drawn from the Biblical passage about wearing tzitzit/fringes (I forget book and verse, and am paraphrasing): Whoever thinks he does only right and just, and does no wrong, let his eyes fall upon the tzitzit and so remember his pride and imperfection.

That is, the ritual object has a purpose outside of merely being “traditional,” whether that object is a fringe on the corner of a tallis or Communion bread/wine (as a non-Catholic, I never know what the proper terminology from my perspective is) — to act as a barrier against what Percy would have called “angelism.”  Do not think you have achieved spiritual perfection; for in so doing, you reveal to yourself your failure.  Do not forget the physical for the sake of the spiritual.  The words attend to the soul; the tallis to the body; together, they are the ritual of prayer because together they treat the whole human.

“What have these things, articles, to do with doing right?”  They are reminders of the interconnectivity of body and soul.


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