Ritual beauty

Ritual beauty

Beha’alotcha Numbers 8:1-12:16

Freud did not have our sedra specifically in mind when he wrote his treatises on religion. He would have pointed to its demand that the Passover sacrifice be done “in accordance with all its rules and rites” as evidence of his claim that religion is basically an obsessive-compulsive neurosis.

To be sure, sacrifice is a ritual, and the very nature of ritual is that it must be done “just right.” But that was, of course, Freud’s point.

Still, the father of psychoanalysis was not altogether objective. Lots of things are done “just right,” including his writings, which follow strict canons of scientific research and argument. In the government of Freud’s Vienna, everything followed exact bureaucratic specification. And if Freud had consulted his own physician, lawyer, or accountant, he would have noticed all due attention being paid to detail.

And the academic conferences Freud attended were nothing if not ritually determined regarding such things as who gave papers, who responded, and how.

What really bothered Freud was not ritual but religion; his scientific secularism had no room for religion, and he developed theories that justified his objections.

And yet Freud was not altogether wrong. Sometimes religious ritual does approximate obsessive-compulsive disorder. An example is a pre-Passover poem written by 11th-century Rabbi Joseph Tov Elem that highlighted the importance of detailed holiday preparation. One verse still concludes our Haggada: “The Passover celebration has concluded appropriately in accordance with all its rules and rites.”

Bonfils had internalized a Christian attitude of his time: the idea that rituals like baptism achieve their intended impact as an automatic consequence of punctilious attention to detail. By contrast, skipping a single step or doing anything out of order renders the ritual null and void, so at roughly the same time that Bonfils wrote his poem, other rabbis were developing mnemonics to guide seder leaders in doing everything “just right.” We still have one such mnemonic today: Kadesh urchatz, by Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise. We chant it as the seder begins to anticipate what follows, but originally it was used to guarantee that the seder not be rendered worthless on account of an error in order.

In its time, this was indeed an obsessive-compulsive attitude, but it is not typical of the mainstream Jewish approach to ritual over the years. The impact of halachic action is not normally believed to follow magically as a consequence of doing it flawlessly.

Of course we perform our rituals “properly,” but everything that matters deeply to us gets done that way: arranging a milestone celebration, perfecting a golf swing, posing for an important photograph. Far from being obsessive-compulsive behavior, these are instances of artistic enterprise.

At our core, we human beings are artists. We describe God’s act of creation as artistry and have been partners with God ever after. We love harmonized melodies, complementary color schemes, matching clothes, flowing language, and coincidences that suggest patterns behind pure randomness. So (contra Freud) while people can use ritual compulsively, most of us appreciate it for its artistry — the means to express ourselves through what is graceful, elegant, beautiful, and profound.

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