“What Does A Jew Need?”
“I waited until everybody is gone and it was quiet. He noticed me and I was standing looking around. And he said, ‘What can I do for you?’ I looked at him and I said ‘Tell me, what does a Jew need? What do I need as a Jew?’ And he said ‘mah tzareech yehudi – mah tzareech yehudi.’ He looked at me like this, and he grasped what I’m saying and he just literally he was so happy! And then he said, ‘Well, you need a kippah. I give you one ok?’ So he gave me a kippah. And you need tefillin. Okay and wait, but you know what? I just…’ He told me some story, and gave me tefillin. It was from a person who died and was a nice story but I had no time for that. And so I had a tefillin. What else? And he says ‘a tallit’. Okay I bought a tallit. What else? And he said ‘Well, siddur’. Ok I bought a siddur. What else? ‘Kitzur shulchan aruch.’ Okay give me one. So I take my things put in my bag and I started to walk. And you know, I had all these little miracles.”
What does a Jew need to be a Jew? What a great question Israel Horovitz asked when he decided to return to Judaism from his many years of studying and exploring Buddhism in Asia. And for me the question is even broader, “what objects and rituals do any of us need to practice the spiritual path of our choosing?” How important are ritual objects such a kippah (head covering), tallit (prayer shawl), tefillin (phylacteries), siddur (prayer book), or even a kiddush cup (wine cup)? In Judaism we love our ritual objects, passing them down to our children and purchasing new ones at sacred occasions like bar mitzvahs and weddings. I had never experienced a religion without ritual objects until I spent time with a close friend at her Unitarian Church whose sole ritual is to light a chalice at the beginning of each service. My own experience is varied. I love the feeling of being cocooned in my tallit at synagogue during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service as I hear the hazzan (cantor) pleading to God on our behalf. I am grateful to have a beautiful kiddush cup and challah knife from my bar mitzvah. And my family holds very sacred a Shabbat candlestick that our grandmother brought with her as a child from Latvia. And, yet, I have been exposed to other spiritual followings such as Unitarianism or even Islam where there is great faith without ritual objects and a minimum of rituals themselves other than prayer itself (Islam has no ritual objects but does have a washing ritual before prayer: ablution).
I did some searching for the history of rituals and ritual objects. What I found is that rituals and ritual objects have both practical and symbolic purposes. One that is very familiar to me from Judaism is the marking of sacred versus “regular” time and space (such as in the Saturday night “Havdallah” service that marks the end of the Sabbath). Ritual objects can be used to remind ourselves to be more mindful such as a Christian wearing a cross or crucifix. And some rituals and ritual objects are to enable us to reach God or for God to reach us. From a scientific point of view, rituals are shown to increase a sense of control and to reduce grief when negative events befall us and to enhance joyful events when those happen. A ritual performed together can also enable us to feel part of a community and being part of a community has led to survival over human history.
My experience is, we sometimes we confuse the ritual object or the ritual itself with whom or what to which we are praying. Franciscan Richard Rohr beautifully points this out when he says, “anything is a sacrament if it serves as a Shortcut to the Infinite, but it will always be hidden in something that is very finite.” So I have to be careful about granting the same status to ritual objects and ritual that is meant for the Divine Presence itself. My conclusion is that ritual objects and rituals help me to remember to connect to the God of my understanding and to my fellow human beings and the earth/universe itself. The rituals I have in my life today that help me do this include praying on my knees twice a day (which is not accepted in Judaism except on Yom Kippur when the cantor lies prostrate on the pulpit during the Aleinu but it is a form of humility which I needed and which I have practiced for 14 years), praying before meals, and journaling each night about what I am grateful for and where do I need to improve. When I go to synagogue or participate in Jewish ritual, I wear a kippah which is both a community expectation but also shows humility. These all remind me that I am a small but critical part of humanity and God’s creation.
Thank you to Israel Horovitz who reminded me that ritual objects (and rituals) can be a powerful part of my spiritual journey.
FYI: I met Israel Horovitz at his home in the Jewish settlement of Bat Ayin. He is now a religious Jew who has been experimenting with growing algae for food and fuel.
Note: Bat Ayin is in area that Palestinians would consider Palestine. I have decided to allow each person I interview to say where they live and that is what I will show as their location. In the future when I publish Palestinian interviews from the same area I will list their location as Palestine.