Ritual memory – the beauty of Judaism
Thoughts on parashat Bo
I have always been struck how Judaism is a study in discipline, at the root, a lesson on how to live one’s life. The Torah is rich with life lessons interwoven in stories, practices, repetition and rhetoric. Perhaps the most telling example of this is the practice of Pesach. In parashat Bo, God lays out the 7-day syllabus that we all recognize and have recreated for over 3500 years:
This day shall be to you one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day, and a sacred occasion on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them; only what every person is to eat, that alone may be prepared for you. You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time. (Ex 12:14-17)
According to the biblical record, all these regulations were revealed to Moses and Aharon in the land of Egypt, just before the Exodus of the Israelites. Imagine the discipline involved in recreating such instructions for every family in Judaism each year for over 3500 years… think about that the next time you are in a meeting or organizing a potluck. Talk about discipline!
Isn’t that clever? Why such detailed delineation of what we should do, day by day, meal by meal and course by course? Because Judaism is genius at using the tools of cognitive psychology to instill the lessons and memories of the Torah. Memory is formed and solidified by repetition, by acting out, by representation to objects; and what are the celebrations of Pesach if not a manifestation of all of these. Through the course of 3500 years, through pogroms, exoduses, expulsions, and the Shoah we still keep our religion alive and the reason is partially due to the fact that Judaism inherently uses all these practical cognitive tools to almost “imprint” these “shared” memories. I don’t mean shared memories in the Jungian way, but instead, by recreating our events, as delineated in the Torah, repetitively, until we all share this memory and know that our fathers and forefathers did as well.
Religion is our nation’s collective memory that lives on in our rituals. Our rituals consistently include reading and studying our sacred books which perpetuates our collective memory and makes us engage deeper and deeper into our rituals, studying more and more. The beauty of Judaism is that we have so much literature that there is no end to studying it. This literature contains moral, philosophical and existential reflection, as well as poetry and stories containing great wisdom. Continuous studying and implementation of that which we study is the essence of being a religious Jew – a religious Jew is someone who never stops studying and practicing. The more we study the more nuanced is our knowledge. The more we practice ritual the more integrated into our lives is our knowledge. That is the uniqueness of our tradition and its beauty.