Cultural Mitzvot and Religious Mitzvot

The law codes of the Torah routinely intertwine ritual and ethical/interpersonal rules. It is a holistic system intended to create a nation which conducts itself in an elevated, Godly fashion. This lack of ritual-ethical distinction also attests to the fact that in ancient times "religion" was not a separate category. It was an inextricable part of the societal and personal mindset. Offering sacrifices or first fruits to the god was, no less than fair business practices, part of being a moral person, an upstanding member of society. It would betray a character flaw to act otherwise.

Early on in Jewish history however, a problematic phenomenon was identified whereby ritual performance was being carried out by people who were ethically compromised. This was harshly criticized in the very first chapter of Isaiah:
"What do I need your abundant sacrifices for?" says YHVH... "I have no desire for the blood of bulls, lambs and he-goats... Don't bring any more vain offerings; it is abominable incense to me... I detest your new moons and your holidays, they are a bother for me... And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; when you increase prayer, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash, purify; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil. Learn to do good; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, do justice for the orphan, fight for the widow." (Isaiah 1:10-17)
The formal distinction between ritual and ethical/interpersonal mitzvot was later recorded in the Mishna, which stresses the greater weight of responsibility needed to atone for interpersonal sins than for sins against God:
Sins between man and God, Yom Kippur atones for. Sins between man and his friend, Yom Kippur does not atone for until he appeases his friend. (Yoma 8:9)
And the centrality of the ethical/interpersonal mitzvot was stated famously in the Talmud, when a non-Jew asks Hillel to teach him all of the Torah "on one leg," i.e. in a single sound bite:
[Hillel] converted him and said to him, "That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study." (BT Shabbat 31a)
We know, as did the great luminaries of the tradition over the past 3000 years, that ethical scrupulousness is the bedrock of the Torah. And yet, it is the ritual observances which are routinely obsessed upon, which have the tendency to become fetishized. Why?

Because it is rituals which identify us outwardly as "Jewish." Performance of a ritual is an act of tribal/communal signalling. It is a declarative act of association with an in-group, the connection to a particular culture. And there is certainly something to that. Not only do we need ritual, culture, and group identification on the human level, but if we drop Jewish rituals, over time (generations) we cease to identify as Jews.

For these reasons, I believe, we've tended to be highly "protective" over matters of ritual observance. However, this can also produce unhealthy side-effects among individuals and communities, such as neurosis over performance, feelings of drudgery attached to ritual, social judgment, communal one-upsmanship, religious coercion, loss of perspective, neglect of ethics, and situations where ritual-fulfilling criminals are welcome in synagogue. Such situations generate the understandable response: How can you call people like that "religious"?

We shouldn't be surprised that such people would be labelled religious. Of the two categories of mitzvot, ethical and ritual, which is the one which we typically view as "religious"? It's the ritual mitzvot. Because we naturally associate "religious people" with 1) ritual performance and 2) affiliation with a religious community.

And it is very difficult to rid the mind of this association. If someone dresses like us, talks like us, performs the same rituals as us, identifies with our cultural in-group, there is a strong, human, instinctual "pull" to align with that person over someone in the out-group.

But this is where I think we ought to recognize the fatal flaw of the tribalist tendency, and use our better "spiritual common sense" to override our pre-programmed instincts. To accomplish this, I would suggest that we reframe and rebrand the idea of being "religious." And my proposal is this: Where it comes to the distinction between ritual and ethical mitzvot, let's start thinking of them as follows:

Ritual = Cultural Mitzvot

Ethical = Religious Mitzvot

What this does is recognize that yes, ritual observance does serve an important cultural function. We need cultural identity, group affiliation on the personal level, and we also need it in order to survive as a Jewish people. However, it is an acknowledgement that as deeply personal and meaningful as Jewish culture and particularism can be, these are merely the outer trappings of Jewishness. Ritual performance is a husk, a shell, a levush (garment) a kli (vessel). The inner core of Judaism, the deeply religious, idealistic, Godly, holy, spiritual aspect of Judaism, concerns the ethics, decency, sense of justice, and compassion with which we conduct our lives and interact with fellow human beings. That is the kernel, the essence, the ohr, the inner light which illuminates and fuels the entire enterprise.

If we accept this "reframe," it will change our approach to people, and to the mitzvot.

Morally corrupt, criminal individuals may indeed be "cultural" Jews, identifying with a certain in-group and performing certain rituals, but they are not "religious" Jews, since their inner core is lacking. Individuals who are scrupulously honest, who help strangers under their burdens, who try to ease the suffering of others, who truly care about the welfare of fellow human beings, but who rarely perform Jewish rituals or make outward Jewish identity statements, may not be such "cultural" Jews, but they are very much "religious" Jews in the inner, spiritual sense.

As far as an ethos surrounding the mitzvot themselves, this formulation obviously puts a greater priority on ethical mitzvot. These are not just platitudes of "let's all be nice." When Hillel said to go study, he meant it! The halakha is positively brimming with details and nuance over all the situations wherein we need to apply sensitivity in our dealings with people. We should be scrupulous, machmir, highly concerned over the way our words and actions affect others.

Insofar as the cultural mitzvot, the rituals, I would suggest that they not be so much the subject of "concern" per se, but rather that they should be celebrated, embraced, and enjoyed. All the halakhot pertaining to rituals should thus be geared to making them more meaningful, more enjoyable. If they are felt as a burden, then we are doing something wrong. Accommodations within halakha should be made for such individuals and communities. This should be a priority for rabbis and halakhists, in order to encourage greater cultural, ritual participation, and in order to ease suffering - which is an ethical, religious priority! Likewise, it should be anathema to judge people on their levush, their garb, their ritual performance. Because that is at worst a cultural lapse. However, it is a religious lapse to cause people suffering by antagonizing them over their ritual performance.

With that, I wish everyone a Shabbat shalom. Yes, Shabbat, one of my favorite cultural mitzvot!