Fake It Until You Make It?


You cannot learn how to play the violin by reading a book, no matter how insightful and brilliant that book might be, or how much we might study. Much of life requires an actual lived experience. Child Protective Services notwithstanding, nobody can understand parenting unless they have actually raised children. Marriage is unfathomable unless you have actually experienced marriage, though even the experience of marriage may not be enough to lead to understanding!

Experience thus builds us up: if we are nice to people, even and especially if it is not in our character or consistent with our mood, then we actually change ourselves. Studies have shown that people who choose to smile, end up being happier. Looking on the bright side and acting accordingly, changes us, and it also affects the world around us. Acting in accordance with something leads us to believing, at some level, in that thing.

In sum: the practice of positive rituals yields positive outcomes. This would be true for anything we do, from thought to word to deed.

This is easiest to justify for simple ideas, like “greet everyone with a smile.” Such an idea is useful enough, but it contains no deeper meaning. A positive demeanor and general good manners are good, to be sure – but do we learn from them? After all, we know from bitter experience that shallow rituals fall away in times of stress and crisis: without deeper and more symbolic bedrock, the edifice of “be nice” topples, to be replaced by Karen Harridan, screaming at strangers in the street.

But what of deeper practices, routines, and rituals? These may well be cloaked in mystery, preserved and performed for reasons of tradition. In other words, what if these rituals are religious in nature?

In Judaism, numerous rituals are commanded, regardless of whether or not the meaning or purpose of that ritual is understood. But that is only the first step: we are supposed to try to understand the meanings, to internalize the lessons.

But most of us, most of the time, do not do so. Which is how the prophets say things that can be paraphrased as, “G-d does not want sacrifices that do not improve the way we relate to others.” If all we really want to do is connect the dots, mindlessly engage in meticulous observance without seeking to grasp the underlying purpose, then we are arguably missing the point.

For example, Jews are commanded to not eat certain kinds of animals. Observant Jews follow the law, with great care. But with few exceptions, practicing Jews do not try to understand why G-d commanded us with dietary laws in the first place! What does a certain diet have to do with being a holy people?

And there are, indeed, solid explanations, explanations that can help us appreciate what our mission, in the limited time we each have on this earth, is really about. Here is one. And here is another. Indeed, I believe that every single commandment in the Torah is there to enable us to improve ourselves and the world, but cloaked in sufficient mystery so that the devout are willing to do the commandments even when they do not understand them!

The net result of understanding the symbolic value of a ritual is that we are able to better internalize the lessons – and project them onto everything and everyone we come in contact with. I do not believe that a person can really fulfill their potential unless they choose to actively engage their critical faculties, to always try to understand why we are commanded to act in certain ways.

But when we fail to think, to engage, then we fall into patterns of thought and behavior that are most analogous to a primitive Rain Dance: if we do the steps just right, then G-d will be appeased/pleased, and blessings will rain down on us. Rain Dances are indistinguishable, at least to the outsider, from any common, if intricate, superstition.  Rain Dances are the haven for paganism, for trying to change nature for our benefit – but not to change ourselves!

Rain Dance religions are not positive influences in the world. Every primitive culture we know of has, at one time or another, eaten people. They do not see underlying value in the human soul, and so the basest and most horrible things imaginable have been done for the sake of the deity that desires the Rain Dance. Rain Dances do not lead to the betterment of anything, except the peace of mind of the practitioner.

Keep in mind that religious rituals do have a value, even if we do not understand them. After all, injunctions like “Be Kind” have never withstood the test of time, but arcane rituals of Judaism and Christianity and Islam (and others besides) have persisted and endured. One might argue that the fact that such rituals are explicitly linked to religion – and even that the mysterious quality of some rituals – have kept them alive and in active practice. And the net results of at least some of these rituals are transparently positive even without a deep dive into underlying symbolic meanings. The nuclear family, for example, is a product, at least in part, by a host of practices and rituals that surround a husband and wife, their home, and the ways in which they raise children. We discard those old-fashioned rituals, but without any certainty that the ritual constitutes the bathwater – or whether it is in fact the baby. The ways in which rituals affect our lives are often quite indirect, mysterious, and difficult to grasp. But that is no reason not to try!

My purpose in writing this piece is to urge every practitioner of a religious ritual to always try to do more than merely tick a box, demonstrating obedience without any interest in demonstrating understanding. There is much more value to be had when we understand why we do something, as well as the value to be had from merely going through the motions. Practicing a given ritual can – and should – lead to internalizing the purposes for that ritual.

And, along the way, perhaps we can better prioritize between the things that are actually important, and the more skin-deep elements of a religious practice that may function more as tribal identifiers (or even merely as ways to reduce the cognitive load of thinking about the mundane) than as ways to connect with G-d and with each other!

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @eliyahumasinter work]

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  1. Headedwest Coolidge
    1. Lots of people gave me advice or told me about being married, when I was about to achieve that status. I listened and thought I understood what they were saying, but nope! You have to be there to have a clue.
    2. Lots of people gave us advice or told us about what it was like to have a child when we were about to achieve that status. We listened and thought we understood what they were saying, but nope! You have to be there to have a clue.
    • #1
  2. Eridemus Coolidge

    The links were fascinating reading.

    • #2
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