Weaving Together Ritual and Ethics

Only through the combination of ritual and ethics can Judaism fully express itself.

Commentary on Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27

In any five-book anthology, the third book always forms the center of that collection. So it is that Vayikra (Leviticus) is the center of the Torah. At the center of Vayikra is Kedoshim, the Holiness Code. This parsha is central in more than just location. A pinnacle of spirit and morality, it embodies the high-water mark of all religious writing, in any period.

What makes Kedoshim uniquely magnificent is its insistence on a maximal Judaism — one that demands much, teaches even more, and that creates a completely new orientation in the hearts of those who try to take it seriously.

Kedoshim does not tailor Judaism to fit the personalities or ideologies of any particular group of Jews. Instead, it posits a lofty set of standards and then challenges the Jews of every age to rise up to match its high ideals and exalted holiness. It asks of us all to grow beyond our own comfortable conventions, our own sleepy standards, to confront our evasion of excellence.

There are some Jews for whom Judaism is primarily a set of behaviors. What matters, for them, is whether or not a Jew performs the required behavior (ritual) in the proper manner. Such people measure “religious Jews” by the number of homes they won’t eat in or by the punctilious performance of ritual deeds.

Yet another group of Jews see Judaism exclusively as a form of social action. Ethics, for them, is the sum and total of any “living” Judaism. Marching against injustice, petitioning Congress and writing letters to the editor — this forms the entirety of what is important in being Jewish. Either of these approaches to Judaism may be right, but neither of them captures the totality of Kedoshim.

Both of these philosophies of Judaism (“Judaism is doing the proper rituals,” or “Judaism is being a good person”) contain an important insight, but both of them reflect only a caricature of the fullness of Judaism as it is developed in the Torah and by the rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash.

Indivisibility of Ethics and Ritual

At core, this week’s reading demonstrates the indivisibility of ritual and ethics. Without seeing any difference, the Torah speaks about paying a laborer his wages promptly, observing Shabbat, honoring parents, not forming idols, the proper mode of sacrifice, and leaving food available for the poor. In this purposeful jumble of ritual and ethical injunctions, the Torah offers only a single justification: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” What a staggering claim!

A maximal Jew practices rituals that are rooted in ethics, and acts on an ethical system that finds expression and reinforcement through ritual. Ethical rigor and ritual profundity — that is the Jewish definition of holiness. By blending those two strands, we create a tapestry stronger and more enduring than either individual thread alone.

Ritual requires ethics to root it in the human condition, to force it to express human needs and to channel urges, to serve human growth and to foster insight. Ethics requires ritual to lend substance to lofty ideals, to remind, on a regular basis, of ethical commitments already made, and to create a community of shared values and high standards. Ritual without ethics becomes cruel. Ethics without ritual becomes hollow.

One of Judaism’s central insights is to fuse ritual and ethics into a single blazing light — the mitzvah (commandment) — and then to reorient that new composite creation — holiness — to reflect the very nature of God. Our standard is no longer tailored to concede our own imperfections or to cater to our mendacity.

Ethics alone make man the measure of all things. Ritual alone surrenders the intellect to the power of unregulated passion. As many people have perished from emotion unleashed as from an unfeeling mind. The two need each other to teach restraint, balance, and compassion. By blending ritual and ethics, we shift the focus from our perspective to God’s. “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

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