When Jewish families sit down to their Passover seders tonight, some may dine on rice or corn, while others wouldn't think of doing so. This difference, observes Asst. Prof. Rabbi Ruth Langer (Theology), is a legacy of the give-and-take between Jewish law and popular custom during the Diaspora that scattered Jews to the four corners of the Earth.
Rabbi Langer said Jews with Northern European roots follow a legal tradition that prohibits the Passover use of rice, corn, beans or anything that could be ground into flour, an expansion of ancient Jewish law restricting use of grains in Passover meals. But Jews who trace their ancestry to Spain observe a tradition that allows Passover use of rice, corn and other foodstuffs not specifically proscribed under ancient law, she said.
These departures in the form of Jewish prayer life are of interest to scholars, Rabbi Langer said, because adherence to prescribed ritual - in prayer, in diet and in other aspects of daily life - has been central to preserving Jewish identity among a people spread across the world.
In a new book, To Worship God Properly: Tensions Between Liturgical Custom and Halakhah in Judaism , Rabbi Langer applies historical scholarship and the anthropological study of ritual to analyze some of the dynamics that have shaped Jewish liturgical law and determined the broader outlines of the prayer life of Jews.
Asst. Prof. Rabbi Ruth Langer (Theology)-"During periods of upheaval, the rabbis have become much stricter and applied the Talmud much more consistently, overriding popular custom." (Photo by Justin Knight)
"Customs are how we know how to live," she said. "Judaism is a culture, not just a religion, and expresses itself in ways that go beyond strict laws of text. What we eat, what we wear, how we live - all become sanctified because that's what our ancestors did. They become part of how we distinguish ourselves as Jews."
Judaism has a defined set of liturgical prayers, Rabbi Langer said, to be recited by the faithful daily as well as on holidays and other occasions, with specific rules governing the invocation of God in blessings.
This system of prayer arose and became obligatory following the Romans' 1st-century destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, where Jewish priests had made the ritual sacrifices prescribed in the Bible. Between the 2nd and 6th centuries, rabbinical writings on prayer were set down and were themselves canonized in the Talmud, the fundamental code of rabbinical law covering every aspect of Jewish life.
Rabbi Langer said a major influence on the development of rabbinical prayer after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple was the need to establish that this "worship of the heart" was as acceptable to God as biblically prescribed sacrificial worship.
Later Jewish communities and their leaders continually refined the details of the system they inherited to reflect their changing understanding of acceptable, meaningful and constructive worship, Rabbi Langer said.
A major thesis of Rabbi Langer's book is that written law has taken precedence over popular custom in liturgical practices during times of mass migration or other upheavals in Jewish society.
"During periods of upheaval, the rabbis have become much stricter and applied the Talmud much more consistently, overriding popular custom," Rabbi Langer said. "Popular custom is much less firmly rooted. When you have different people thrown together through intermarriage or through immigration from one country to the next, customs are shaken loose from their moorings."
The matter of observing custom is more than simply an area of scholarship for Rabbi Langer, who was raised and ordained in the Reform Judaism tradition - which does not require strict observance of traditional law - but has since moved with her husband and two children to an Orthodox congregation.
"I think custom is incredibly enriching," she said. "The more I learned, the more the tradition made sense. Now, I don't turn electricity on or off or drive during the Sabbath. But we have a rich 25 hours of prayer, of study, of family togetherness and community [during the Sabbath]. The interest in prayer is what shapes people's spiritual lives."
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