When I was a practicing pulpit rabbi, I would often be asked the following question: “What is more important, Rabbi, to give charity and to work in support of Israel or to come to synagogue and pray?”
I always found this type of question disconcerting. Was it meant to imply that Judaism’s ultimate value is ethical and moral action, and that there is no deep significance, independent of ethics, to the quest for a personal relationship with God? Did it suggest that we could live a moral and ethical life even after dispensing with God? Or was this type of question a masked self-justification for not coming to services on the Sabbath?
I was equally disturbed by the often heard claim that the Reform and Conservative movements are far more deeply involved with humanitarian causes, such as the refugees in Darfur, than Orthodox congregations. This claim always seemed to imply that a deep commitment to halakhic observance deadens a Jew to universal ethical concerns.
I believe these types of questions and claims are a total distortion of Judaism. We can maintain the supremacy of the ethical without denying the deep quest for an intimate relationship with God, which is symbolized by prayer.
We live with God not only in prayer, but in the way we treat other human beings. That is why the Talmud teaches us that Yom Kippur does not forgive sins between one human being and another; rather, only after you have asked your friend or neighbor to forgive you for your wrongdoing can you approach God in prayer on Yom Kippur.
Our tradition never wanted to sacrifice the importance of symbolic, dramatic actions – that is, ritual – as a profound and essential component of the spiritual life. However, regardless of how important ritual should be, it must never make us indifferent to our relationship to and solidarity with other human beings. Intimacy with God should not impair or undermine our deep sense of solidarity with, love and concern for others.
The Bible does not begin with the story of God and Israel, or with revelation, but with the creation of the world. The creation story casts us into a universal mode of self-comprehension. Creation is the foundation for the universal solidarity of all human beings.
Revelation and ritual are expressions of our religious particularity. Ethics is an expression of universality. All must be joined together in Judaism. The yearning for intimacy with God must not be a source of estrangement among people. It is through universal compassion that we truly experience the God of creation. Although Sinai separates us from others, creation always brings us back to appreciating and empathizing with all human beings.