Social and Ritual

What does it take to be able to say, “I am religious”? Most will tell you that to be religious you need to observe Shabbat and holidays, kosher, and the laws of family purity. But are we really religious if that is all we observe? What of honesty and kindness? If I don tefillin every day, but gossip; if I pray thrice daily, but cheat; am I religious? Are the ritual religious tenets superior to the social ones?

The answer is of course a resounding “no.” Cheating and lying are just as forbidden as lobster and shrimpCheating and lying are just as forbidden as lobster and shrimp. Arrogance and anger are just as proscribed as bacon and pork. Gossip and lewdness are just as sinful as desecrating the Shabbat. To declare yourself religious is to pledge fidelity to all the Torah laws, not just to the ones you like best.

Paschal Lamb

Ritual Torah laws and social Torah laws are equally divine, and nowhere is this more evident than in the first commandment that we received as a nation. Before leaving Egypt, G‑d commanded us to partake of the paschal lamb. Let’s review the peculiar requirements of this mitzvah.

The ritual components included the slaughtering of a sheep, the painting of its blood on the doorposts, and the pre-midnight roasting and consumption of its meat. But, there were also social requirements. The meat could be consumed only in groups. Once you joined a group and the lamb was slaughtered, you could not switch to a different group. Once the meat was brought into the house, it could not be removed. No bone could be broken during its consumption. And only circumcised Jews were permitted to partake.

I suggest that G‑d ordained a blend of ritual and social laws as our first commandment to underscore the equal importance of both. Embracing one without the other is neither G‑dly nor religious.

Social Dynamics

In every group, there are those whose company we enjoy more than others. When social tensions surface, fissures begin to appear that threaten the group’s When you hear another’s point of view, you filter it through your ownintegrity. Several outcomes are possible. The group can agree to break up into smaller groups, it can stay together and ignore the simmering tensions until they come to a boil, or it can stretch to accommodate the variant streams.

G‑d didn’t want our ancestors to eat their paschal lamb alone at home, nor did He want them to eat it at a huge convention. He wanted them to eat it in small, manageable groups, comprised of just enough people to consume an entire lamb in a single night. In other words, a group larger than a family but smaller than a crowd, in which it is possible to interact meaningfully with each member.

In large crowds, individuals can get lost. In smaller groups, each person counts. This means that every individual impacts the group with his or her personality and peculiarities. The possibility of clashes is as strong as the possibility of forming new friendships.

The Torah put the people together in a group, and denied them the option of breaking it up. Once the group was formed and the lamb had been slaughtered, the group had to survive the night. This social setting forced them to be amiable, patient and tolerant. If differences appeared, they couldn’t opt out. They couldn’t even take their meal outside to create space and cool off. Neither could the lamb’s bones be broken—i.e., they couldn’t allow tensions to simmer until they exploded. There was no choice but to get along. By the time the evening ended, they had to learn to settle their differences and ameliorate their problems, because that was the only option.

The message is this: You can’t partake of a ritual and be in sync with G‑d if you are not in sync with His children. The ritual laws and the social laws are equal parts of the Torah, and both are integral to our relationship with G‑d.

Only the Circumcised

The question is how to achieve this, and the answer lies in the requirement that only the circumcised join this group. Circumcision is performed on the organ that facilitates physical bonding. Additionally, the Torah speaks elsewhere of a symbolic “foreskin” around the heart, the organ that facilitates emotional bonding.

Bonding is our ability to share, to give and to receive. To see the world through another’s perspective and to let it rub off on our own. A foreskin conceals and encloses the organs that bond. To be sure, you can still bond, but everything is filtered through the foreskin. Symbolically, this means that when you hear another’s point of view, you filter it through your own.

(This does not suggest that uncircumcised men cannot relate to others; this discussion is completely allegorical. Also note that the Talmud states that women are considered to be “born circumcised.”)

The secret to tolerance, patience and unity is listening to others from their point of view. We often engage in conversation to share our own thoughts, and filter everything we hear through our own worldview. When something clashes with our worldview, we seek to mold it to fit our perceptions. When we meet people we can’t stand, we try to change them; when we fail, we grow frustrated and reject them.

To foster unity, we need to stop talking and truly listen. To view the world through the eyes of others and adjust our thoughts to theirs. It doesn’t mean that we change our view; it means that we seek to understand each other. When others feel understood, they feel accepted, and when they feel accepted, they are prepared to accept us in turn. Conversely, when we understand each other, we can tolerate the peculiarities that otherwise disturb us.

During this kind of bonding experience, there is no need for violent “bone-breaking” and no need for escape. There are no tensions and no disintegrations. Instead, there is lots of discussion, lots of sharing and full acceptance. We might disagree, but we will respect each other. We might disagree, but we will respect each other

The symbolic meaning of removing the foreskin is cultivating our ability to bond by opening our hearts to others and truly seeing them from their point of view. In the end, hearing the other side enriches our own. We become more complete when we are open to new ideas.

This is why G‑d told Abraham that by removing his foreskin, he would become complete. By cutting away a part of his body and making himself imperfect, he would become perfect. Those who consider themselves perfect leave no room for improvement and have no need for others. They can perform ritual commandments but cannot relate to G‑d’s children. They are incomplete.

Those who “remove the foreskin” and open their hearts ultimately become complete. They balance the ritual and the social. They relate to G‑d and to His children.

They can truly say, “I am religious.”