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Commentary on Tanakh Discussion February 1, 2021: Why Do We Do What We Do? 

Don Perlmutter

Just Do It!
The question Rabbi Edery posed to us was inspired by Shemot (Exodus) 24 in which Moses revealed God’s words and the Book of the Covenant to the people. Their response in unison was, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will hear." The significance lies in the order of these pledges. They promised to do first, then to hear. Moses expected  acceptance from his people without offering a justification. In support of this, Sefer HaChinuch, or Book of Education, which analyzes the 613 commandments, suggests that a person is influenced by his actions, and one’s heart and thoughts follow the acts he or she does.

There are many precedents in our history to this “leap of faith," from Abraham’s journey to Canaan on God’s command: “Lech-lecha,” to the great immigration of Jews to America who uprooted themselves with profound uncertainty as to their futures.     

It is interesting to note that this principle is foundational to modern Behavioral Psychology, which holds that the cognitive factors behind one’s behavior are secondary to the behavior itself. In fact, studies have demonstrated that the fastest way to change a person’s emotional state is to first change the behavior associated with it. In other words, action precedes and will result in a changed state of being, thinking, and feeling. Leonard Cohen summed it up well when he wrote: “Act the way you’d like to be, and soon you’ll be the way you act.” 

Chabad members embrace this tactic when encouraging casual Jews to practice ritual in the belief that they will connect with their neshama (Jewish spirit). The act of performing the mitzvah takes precedence over the understanding of the act. 

On the Other Hand...
A counterpoint to this approach is the logical, rational one voiced by the Dalai Lama when he taught: “Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly." This demands mental discipline and analysis, which then inform one’s decision-making and actions. 

Why Do We Perform Rituals?
Rabbi Edery explained, there is a distinct difference in the approach to Jewish practice between Europeans, where the Reform movement began, and Orientals. Modern European Jews tend to be rational and seek logic and practical value before engaging in practice, whereas Oriental Jews (Sephardim) are prone to accept ritual for its emotional value. Our discussion delved into the question of our motivations for performing actions. Answers ranged from acting out of mere habit, to conscious decision-making, to emotions such as fear and desire. 

Do we follow Jewish traditions because they have practical value, or has the original rationale been lost in the fog of time and no longer relevant to our world? Some say we practice rituals because these acts reinforce our Jewish identity. It can be argued that, regardless of the original intent, the repetition of ritual connects us spiritually to our heritage. It gives us comfort and a sense of community. Are these not essential to the mission of religion?

Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784