Rogel Alpher Is Also a Ritual

'May you be inscribed in the Book of Life' and 'See you later' are simply formulas we say to each other at certain times, reflecting a shared culture.

Rogel Alpher’s recent op-eds have taken an unchanging position: lamentation and eulogies for the country, which is becoming more nationalist and more religious, alongside complaints and grievance that, as a citizen of this country, he is obliged to be present and suffer under these processes. Like the Last Mohican, Alpher is the last secular Jew, the only one who still clings to the principles of pure reason and devout materialism, and there’s nothing for him to do but gaze, eyes agog with dread and regret, at Israel’s primitive society, which is unfortunately degenerating toward its theocratic end.

There’s definitely something to admire in militant secularism, both from its own standpoint, since its disciples take their worldview seriously and fight for their values, and from the standpoint of religion, which, as history teaches us, undoubtedly needs constant external criticism. Alpher also sometimes touches on valid issues. But sometimes, as in his latest op-ed, he shoots without checking where he’s shooting. Alpher writes:

“I didn’t wish anyone that he be ‘inscribed in the Book of Life.’ There is no God and he doesn’t inscribe. When people said to me: ‘May you be inscribed in the Book of Life,’ I didn’t answer. In any case, nobody close to me offers that hollow blessing and I prefer honesty to a fake blessing. I didn’t go to synagogue. I treat words seriously. And so I can’t seriously chant prayers.”

The above shows a complete lack of understanding of the status and value of ritual. Alpher “treats words seriously,” and therefore doesn’t wish anyone that he be “inscribed in the Book of Life” and doesn’t pray. But this blessing, like the prayer service, is a ritual. It’s true there are people who take these words literally, but for most people, including observant Jews, “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life” isn’t any more of a literal wish than “See you later.” Both are simply formulas that we say to each other at certain times, and their meaning is a mutual recognition of our shared belonging to a certain community, of being part of a shared culture.

Ritual, by its nature, is formulaic and repetitive. Therefore, it’s performed without any necessary connection to the emotion that does or doesn’t accompany it. Beginning a conversation with “How are you?” is a ritual, and 99 percent of the time we don’t intend for this question to be answered. Beginning an event by saying “Good evening and welcome” is a ritual, and the emcee has no intention of declaring that the evening is really good or that the audience is really “blessed,” which is the literal meaning of the Hebrew phrase for “welcome” (bruchim haba’im). Ending a meeting with the words “thank you all very much” is a ritual, and it isn’t really intended to thank everyone or to assert that everyone is deserving of thanks. Manners are also a form of ritual. So is modest dress.

Our lives are full of rituals, and effectively, there’s no such thing as human life without rituals. Some are more traditional and some are new, but they always recur, regularly, and aren’t meant to be understood literally. In fact, as the scholar of religion Adam Seligman (Boston University) wrote, many rituals are explicitly meant to momentarily create a reality that doesn’t exist, so demanding that they conform to the existing reality is absurd. It’s simply beside the point.

Beyond this, the idea that it’s possible to simply do without rituals, that it’s possible to live a life devoid of gestures, manners or fashion, resembles the idea that it’s possible to sever ourselves completely from the past, that it’s possible to recreate ourselves anew every day, that as modern people, we’re individuals devoid of context or history. All these are myths devoid of validity, which modern secularism tells itself no less devoutly than religions tell fables about paradise.

Alpher writes, “In October my life is snatched away from me in a truly violent way.” If Alpher treats words seriously, he evidently means that when someone wishes that he be “inscribed in the Book of Life,” or when he sees a sukkah in the street, his life is forcibly taken away – that these religious symbols beat him and wound him and run away with his life or health, and he’s left as a shattered, empty vessel, expiring in the street, until he dies. But of course none of this happens to him. Alpher simply wants to say that he’s been forced into an encounter with a tradition he doesn’t respect.

This sentence is the concluding sentence of the op-ed, and therefore, it’s melodramatic and exaggerated. That’s how writers end opinion pieces, and it’s not necessary to take every word in them literally. This, too, is a kind of ritual.

The writer is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.