Very often in life, there's a BIG difference between theory and practice. A rule on paper is very different from how it's implemented in real life. It's true in many (if not most) fields, and it's certainly the case in religion. I've experienced this myself many times, where rabbinical school prepared me with clear-cut examples, textbook definitions, and 'regular' questions that congregants might throw at me. And then there was real life...
I find this especially true in lifecycle ceremonies, where the Rabbi's Manual (yes, I have one of those) outlines how rituals are 'supposed to' go, and I often find myself smiling at how oversimplified they can
be. The book suggests questions to ask a mourner when preparing for a funeral, but some questions seem stale and artificial. It outlines a ritual for a baby naming, but it feels forced and overly-scripted. I was recently researching the ritual for delivering a Get, a divorce document, and found a five-page script for what the rabbi, husband, wife, and witnesses are supposed to say; word for word. All I could think was, "Good God, these people just want to get this over with A.S.A.P.! Why all this extra agony?!?" Some of our rituals can be so fraught with awkwardness, embarrassment, and discomfort, we really have to ask ourselves, 'what is the point?'
This week's Torah portion shows us that all this dis-ease has ancient roots, in a part of the Torah that deals with, well, disease! Our parasha is one of the most uncomfortable of all, as it discusses - in excruciating detail - skin diseases and discharges, and how the priest in the Temple has to examine
each one. Closely. And several times. In order to determine whether it's Divine punishment or just some poor shmo with excema. And as weird and unsympathetic as the whole ordeal is, it actually gets worse still. We read in Leviticus 13:45-46: "As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, 'Impure, impure!' He shall be impure as long as the disease is on him. Being impure, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp." So first the guy has a rash. Then we bring the High Priest to examine it thoroughly AND in public (anyone want their rabbi that up close and personal? Not me!), and to really pour salt in this wound, we tear up his clothes, uncover his head, have him live alone outside the camp, and make him shout out, "I'm impure! Run away!!" YIKES! By comparison, the divorce ritual looks like a walk in the park!
So in the midst of all this craziness, the rabbis mercifully swoop in and redeem this for us, if only just a little. In the Babylonian Talmud (Masechet Chulin), in discussing why the person calls out 'Impure!,'
the rabbis declare, "he shall make known his affliction so that they may pray for him." In other words, rather than further humiliating the person, the reason for making this whole thing a public ritual is so that others can pray for him. So that they can bring food, take care of his family members, suggest a good dermatologist. Sometimes we choose to suffer in silence, thinking that no one else cares about what we're going through. But we have to make that initial effort, we have to reach out to the people around us and make it known that we're struggling, because we may instead discover that MANY people care, and many people want to help.
The same is true for the overly scripted rituals, or even the practices that are described in theory one way, but implemented in another way entirely. The missing link is the warmth of a human touch.
It's not the fault of the Rabbi's Manual that its ceremonies are stale; they're in a book meant for everyone! They are a spring board; a starting point with a general outline, which is then meant to be infused with the uniqueness of the individual rabbi, the distinct family, and the specific moment in time. The difference between theory and practice is an essential difference, because it reminds us how vital we all are. Ceremonies and rituals left on paper - even if that paper is the Torah - are lifeless and dated. It's our job to bring those ceremonies back to life, and to make them applicable here and now.
Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber and Ohev Shalom
2. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber and Ohev Shalom (in case you didn't believe it existed...)