Jewish Ritual Can Help Us Bridge the Character Gap

Uh oh. What did this famous person do?

Recently, a friend of mine was talking about what happens when seeing a celebrity name trending in the news, and the difference in the reactions between 2016 and 2017. In 2016, if we saw a name, the question was, “Uh oh. Did this person die?” In 2017, it was, “Uh-oh. What terrible thing did this person do?”

With the growth of #MeToo and deeper conversations about how we act and talk ethically in general, the question of character has once again become a critical question for us. How good are we? And how do we become better?

Philosopher Christian Miller has been studying this question for years, and recently published the book The Character Gap: How Good Are We? In a review of the book, Mark Moring explains this “character gap” as follows:

[M]ost of us think we’re basically good, honest, trustworthy people. But we’re kidding ourselves. We all have serious character flaws that most of us don’t even recognize in ourselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you or I are bad people, but just indicates that there’s a “character gap” between how good we think we are, and how good we really are.

“The pressing question thus emerges—how can we become better people?” Miller writes. “What can we do so that gradually over time our children, our friends, and we ourselves are close to being virtuous than we are now?

How, in other words, can we bridge the character gap?

The book outlines several strategies (many of which use both science and religion), but there is one that is particularly effective and deeply consonant with Jewish practice. As one way to become a better person in 2018, Miller suggests that we use “moral reminders.” As he notes:

We usually know the right thing to do, but we get ourselves into trouble when we don’t pay attention to it in the moment. A note on the bathroom mirror, to tell the truth, can help. Or an automated text message to think about what someone else is going through. Studies have found, for instance, that recalling the Ten Commandments eliminated cheating that otherwise would have been rampant on a test.

In other words, use ritual. We all use rituals to help us remember to do things, and they have both instrumental and inherent value. Many parents have bedtime rituals, for example — in my family, specifically, it’s brush teeth, bath, pajamas, and then snuggle for some reading and singing (“books and bed,” we call it). It both cues them for sleep and also allows us to end the day with deep closeness.

But another ritual extends to an ethical element. On Shabbat, we give tzedakah right before we light the candles. It reminds us that we need give to others, and the ritual of Shabbat cues us. We love the hugs and kisses on Shabbat, we love the light that exudes from the candles, and we love the feeling Shabbat brings to us. But it also gives us built-in tools to help us ensure that we try to act morally.

Many liberal Jews love the ethical teachings of Judaism but feel uneasy towards ritual. If we truly want to bridge the character gap, however, we shouldn’t ignore the tools that exist right in front of us. Instead, let’s try to live by the words of the late Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, who told us “ritualize the ethical and ethicize the ritual.”

If we can do that, perhaps we can truly become the people we wish to be.

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