Ritual and our lives as Americans
Dennis Prager, founder of the wildly popular five-minute internet video site Prager University, always talks about the key biblical notion of self-control: the greatest thing we need to learn to control is not others, not society, not climate — it is ourselves. This week, he also spoke about the essential nature of ritual for a happy life and health of any nation or religious tradition. I struck out on both accounts this week.
My grandson was just born. I heard that circumcising him in the hospital would be "free" — that the exorbitantly expensive insurance plan would cover it. I lost self-control briefly, encouraging the family to forgo the ritual and save the money. After thinking more about the nature of ritual, I changed course. The Bris occurred. It was priceless.
This taught me a couple of lessons. One, self-control is a lifelong struggle. It's never mastered, only wrestled with. Two, if you live in a failing society, one that discourages ritual, it's easy to go along. Vast swaths of America have become radically secular, ritualrein. Great numbers of rituals that elevated and enriched our lives and bound us as Americans and tied us to the God of the Bible are dead or dying. The beautiful pageantry of Christmas is fast fading. It's common now to see darkened homes rather than ones lit with beautiful Christmas lights. Memorial Day is a time for a hot dog rather than a patriotic parade. The utter and beautiful peace, quiet, and calm on Sabbath Sunday I recall from childhood has been erased by the unending drone of folks attuned to the common, making the next buck or in line at Costco checkout.
Dennis and my rabbi helped me regain control and lead my family where they must go. Of course, there is in one respect no difference between the objective act of removing the foreskin of a Jewish baby boy on a table in a cold, clean, bright surgical-center room vs. removing that small piece of skin on a table in Papa's home. But in another respect, there is a world of difference. In the surgical center, it just becomes a cold, material, base act of steel separating skin from skin. At home, surrounded by family rabbi and mohel, saying the ritual prayers said for thousands of years of Jewish history, and marking the boy's entry into the covenant of God with his chosen people, it becomes a sublime human act.
I am not 100% sure why these beautiful rituals are so important. My guess is that they speak to very deep parts of our souls in profound and positive ways that enrich our lives and connect us with elevated things like God, our people, and our country. They are not mere reflections of brain function or a Darwinian impulse. They are a reflection of being made in the image of God. This is why I myself, a Jew, tear up listening to the Vienna Boy's Choir singing the beautiful hymns during Christmas, singing that expresses the love of God for us and His creation. It's the reason I can still feel the intense love of America and God I felt when we stood each day as kids in public school and said the pledge, sang the anthem, and, oh my gosh, said a prayer praising God, parents, teachers, and our country.
Tragically, America as an exceptional civilization is not going to survive on our new ritual-free life. The false ritual of Super Bowl Sunday won't cut it. Our woke, "progressive," Marxist churches and synagogues and schools won't, either, with their pseudo-rituals of building gender-neutral bathrooms, fighting carbon emissions, promoting abortions, fighting their own whiteness, sanctifying the nonbinary, pronoun fetishes, and drag queen story time.
So I turned from the herd calling me to the bleakness of American secularism and saving a buck. I took control of myself and did my duty. My family and I embraced the beautiful Bris ritual of welcoming our dear little American boy Mason into the Covenant of the Jewish people this week. It's a small contribution to reversing this terrible, spirit-draining, civilization-wrecking trend of ritual-ablation in America.