In Judaism, what comes first? Ethics or rituals?

June 21, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi…

Rabbi Raymond Apple

RITUALS OR ETHICS?

Q. Which is more important in Judaism – rituals or ethics?

A. It is a problem that resounds through the Bible.

King Solomon says in the Book of Proverbs, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3).

A similar thought is found in I Sam. 15:22 and in other passages also.

These verses do not say that sacrifices and other rituals are not valuable but that they must be performed together with righteousness and justice.

“Proste froomkeit” – ritual without righteousness – is no great achievement.

In that sense righteousness and justice are better in God’s eyes than ritual punctiliousness. However, ethical conduct is inadequate without prayer and mitzvot.

Note that the verse refers to two ethical subjects – righteousness and justice – which in Hebrew are “tz’dakah” and “mishpat”.

“Tz’dakah” is sometimes narrowly understood as charity in the financial sense, but it has a wider connotation of love, concern and care for other people in both acts and attitudes, which includes but is not limited to giving them monetary support.

“Mishpat” means being fair and even-handed to them, especially in the broader context of how they are treated in and by the community.

The mark of a good society is that people live by both “tz’dakah” and “mishpat”; the mark of a good Jewish society is that they also carry out the mitzvot between man and God.

DOING ALL THE MITZVOT

Q. I know that people can improve their religious observance by doing more mitzvot, but what about people who do all the mitzvot already? How do they improve themselves?

A. I am not so sure that anyone does all the mitzvot.

It is not only that some mitzvot only apply when we have a Temple and live in the Land of Israel, but many of the mitzvot deal with attitudes and not acts.

Loving your neighbour as yourself, honouring your parents, keeping away from “a false word”, never deviating from the path of justice – these are also mitzvot, and we can all improve the way we carry them out.

The Kotzker Rebbe had a further explanation. When asked a similar question, he said, “The right motivation is also part of the mitzvot. It is not only the act that is important, but whether we think the right thoughts when we do it.”

In that sense no-one can be called perfect.

WRITING ABOUT TRIFLES

Q. I do not always like your answers to questions, especially when you advocate the small minutiae of religion. Why don’t you write about big subjects?

A. I do actually write about big things too (take a look at my website).

Regarding the “small minutiae”, there is a story about Michelangelo, who was working on his statue of David when a friend asked him why it was taking so long.

The artist explained that he often had to go back and straighten a line or smooth out a corner.

“But these are just trifles,” said his friend.

“I know,” replied Michelangelo, “But trifles add up to greatness… and greatness is no trifle!”

The moral is surely obvious.

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