In Defense of “Going Through the Motions”

Is there anything worse than “going through the motions?”  Is there any stronger description of emotional emptiness and lack of meaning? Marriages end because “we were just going through the motions.” People abandon religious practice because they were “just going through the motions” at church or synagogue.

But is that a fair way to treat religion? Author Karen Armstrong doesn’t think so. In an interview with Religion News Service, she argues that faith is often born out of action.

…none of our doctrines or beliefs make sense unless they are translated into practical action. Religion is a form of practical knowledge, like driving or dancing or swimming. You can’t learn to dance simply by reading a book. You have to do it, and practice hard.  (Full interview here.)

Armstrong is a former nun, but she’s hit on a very Jewish idea here. In the book of Exodus, the people enter into covenant at Sinai with the words “Na’aseh V’nishma – We will do and we will hear.”  The Rabbis make a big deal out of this formula because it is a statement of total faith; it puts following the commandments before hearing/understanding them.

As liberal Jews, this isn’t an entirely comfortable idea for us. We aren’t thrilled with the idea of signing on the dotted line before reading the fine print, even if it is God on the other side of the table. In fact, Reform Judaism’s notion of Informed Choice is essentially opposite:

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of (mitzvot) and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. (CCAR “Pittsburgh Principles”, 1999. Full text here.)

In Reform, our choices are based on knowledge and understanding, and a determination that a particular practice holds meaning for us. We might say “Nishma V’Naaseh – If we understand it, and then we will do it.”

But rejecting Na’aseh V’nishma is bad for us and for our Judaism. If we remove all traditional Jewish ritual except that which has a rational purpose, then not only do we lose our sense of ownership over it, but we lose the opportunity to find the role that it can play in our lives. In fact, “trying things out” is one of the ways that we learn. This is exactly Karen Armstrong’s point, that understanding and internalization often are born out of action. And this is the context in which we liberal Jews should understand Na’aseh V’nishma: “If we do it, then we may come to understand it.”

So what’s so wrong with going through the motions? Certainly we shouldn’t spend our lives performing empty rituals that have no meaning, but if participating in religious life can, over time, bring us to an appreciation of religious meaning, then we should find ways to participate. If trying out kashrut, or kippah, or tallit, or daily prayer, might bring the meanings of those rituals into our lives, then we should try them. We may just find that we like them.

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