One of the most insightful explanations of religious ritual came from the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Noticing how so many ceremonies re-enact great moments in religious tradition, Reb Zalman termed them “peak experiences domesticated.”
By reliving these extraordinary moments, modern worshippers can remind ourselves of the ways that God can be present in human life.
When Jews celebrate the Sabbath and the Creative Presence, which brought the world into being, we can also reflect on God’s continuing work in the world, enlivening us and inspiring us.
When we celebrate Passover and how God freed the ancient Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, we can also realize how God can be a liberating force in our lives — working to free modern humanity from the oppressions which plague us.
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When Christians celebrate Christmas and the birth of their savior, they can also rejoice in the divine possibility that God places in every child. When they re-enact Jesus’s Last Supper and eat and drink the divine, they can also realize the moral transformation possible when one takes godliness into one’s life and lets the word become flesh in a very personal way.
During the Muslim Hajj, the great month-long pilgrimage to Mecca, many of the rituals re-enact seminal moments in the lives of the prophet and other faith leaders. One, in particular, is quite dramatic: the stoning of the Devil. When the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims throw stones at the three large ritual walls and identify with Abraham’s rejection of evil and selfishness, they can also express their own holy wishes to turn from temptation and submit their will to God’s.
This same dynamic can be found in religions all over the world. Reliving moments of God’s Presence through these “domesticated peak experiences” infuses our daily lives with an awareness of the transcendent and holy. It reminds us that, just as God was present in previous special moments, God can be present for us, too.
Reb Zalman used to teach — and I believe — that the purpose of religion is to give us both a vocabulary for the spiritual and techniques for accessing this dimension of reality.
God exists in every part of our lives — in the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. God creates in each; God reveals wisdom in each; and God is accessible in each. Whether we have mystical experiences or simply find meaning in religious observance, the eternal presence is here and is encounterable. Our religions are here to help us make the connection.
Rabbi David E. Ostrich is the spiritual leader of Congregation Brit Shalom.