Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle, 20 April 1962.
The fascination exercised by the Seder nights is universal. Even Jews whose attachment to other observance is lukewarm continue to observe the Seder rites in all their detail, and those who are normally lax are often in this respect quite meticulous. It is unquestionably true that a large part of the Seder’s appeal lies in the opportunity it affords for a festive family occasion and, in so far as Judaism is concerned with the strengthening of family ties, this is wholly welcome. But family sentiment is not the only emotion generated by the Seder; the ritual in itself is attractive and meaningful. Is there not here a lesson of far-reaching significance?
It used to be fashionable to distinguish between the basic idea of; Judaism—ethical monotheism—and the ritual aspects of our faith which were said to be relatively unimportant, serving only as a means of keeping the central idea alive and valued chiefly as a means of preserving the Jewish people. From both the historical and psychological stand-points such an attitude towards ritual is unsound. It is false to Jewish history because in both the Bible and the Talmud the ritual laws are treated with great seriousness. Ritual and ethical precepts are frequently juxtaposed with only the occasional suggestion that the one provides higher rungs than the other on the Jews’ ladder to heaven. Modern psychology makes it easier to grasp that ritual can have a profound effect on man’s psychic life. There are depths in the human soul which even reason is powerless to plumb and which can be stirred only by ritualistic acts, by music, song, dance, and by a recital hallowed by centuries of repetition. It is a remarkable fact that during the Roman period the many converts Judaism won among pagans were not attracted solely or even primarily by the lofty Jewish ethic but by ritual practices of Judaism, like its dietary laws.
Classical reform made the mistake of trying to treat Judaism as a series of propositions to which intellectual assent alone was required. Contemporary reform has come round to the view that if Judaism if to speak to the whole Jewish personality it must acquire a richer ritual content.
In one of his lectures Rabbi J. L. Bloch of Telz, asks us to imagine the dramatic effect of a stage presentation of the Exodus story of Passover. He rightly observes that a far deeper psychological appreciation of freedom and its values is achieved by the more indirect methods of the traditional Seder. We are no doubt moved at a superficial level by a film or a play dealing with this great theme, but it is to the personal performance of the ritual of the Seder that we repair for the, enduring message of the Exodus to us and to our children.
These observations are, of course, in no way intended to reflect on the importance of the Jewish ethic, which is our crowning glory. But in an age which has benefited from the researches of Freud and Jung we do well to remember that man has an unconscious as well as a conscious mind and that the former can be reached through our ancient ritual.