Shiur #11: Worship

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

1.         The Scope of Avodat Hashem


In last week's shiur we talked the Rambam's insistence that God alone should be worshipped, but I did not explore very much what that worship involves.  This week I want to address what worship consists of in our tradition.  Obviously, this is a topic that deserves far more than one short essay, which is not possible in our context, but it is important enough to justify a digression from our focus on the Rambam's thirteen principles.  In next week's shiur I will continue this theme with an essay on prayer.


The notion of worship, avoda in Hebrew, includes prayer, but also extends to activities that appear far removed from how we ordinarily understand prayer.  The central concept of avoda in the Torah involves sacrifices performed in the Temple.  I want to address, if only briefly, what avoda is and what is its significance for us.


Avoda can be translated as worship, but it is perhaps more readily translated as service, and hence avodat Hashem is service of God.  Avodat Hashem can mean far more than anything we ordinarily think of as worship – Moshe Rabbeinu is referred to in the Torah as the quintessential eved Hashem, servant of God.  Moshe was not merely a person with a tremendous capacity for prayer (though he was that, too).  Rather, avodat Hashem in the context of Moshe refers to the orientation of his life as a whole in terms of devotion to God in all aspects.  Moshe Rabbeinu represents an ideal, as well as an important reminder that the devotion to God cannot be compartmentalized into only aspect of one's life.  True devotion is all-encompassing and generates the possibility that every action takes on an aspect of worship, and every feature of one's personality is connected to one's being an eved Hashem.[1] However, it is worthwhile to narrow our focus and investigate those actions and activities that are more obviously and explicitly understood as avoda – as service of God: that is, the performance of mitzvot.  In performing a mitzva, a commandment, one is inherently serving God who commanded that action.  Here too, there is room to make a distinction: we perform many mitzvot as a matter of course, as part of a normal healthy life.  The most notable example of this is perhaps gemilut chesed, performing acts of kindness – many people give of themselves constantly, to their children, relatives and friends, without consciously acting with intention to fulfill the mitzva.  If anything, focusing on God while helping or caring for another person is inappropriate insofar as it diverts one's attention from the person one is helping.  Without denying that there is an element of avodat Hashem in all mitzvot, regardless of one's intention or conscious focus, I want to consider more carefully those that have a particularly religious or ritual orientation,[2] such that the performance of the action is consciously an act of Divine service.[3]


2.         The Difficulties with Making Sense of the Avoda in the Temple


As I mentioned above, Divine service in the Torah centers on the sacrificial rites performed in the Temple.  Large sections of the Torah are dedicated to the description of the Mikdash (Temple) and to the multifarious laws involved in bringing sacrifices.  This poses a difficulty for many modern religious people, who find such practices at least aesthetically challenging if not downright barbaric.  This topic has been discussed by many and I do not want to go into it here.[4]  Instead, I want to discuss two other aspects of the sacrificial rite that are not sufficiently well understood.  The first is the role of these actions as a form of avodat Hashem. We are used to thinking of our relationship with God as something involving feelings of admiration, gratitude, need, hope and regret.  Certainly the expression of such feelings and intentions plays a role in the Temple service as well, but they are not the main focus.  Most of the sacrificial rite is just that – a rite that must be performed according to very precisespecifications.  It is difficult to see how one could achieve a “spiritual” connection with God when burdened with such a wealth of particular actions to perform.


The second problem has to do with the way the Mikdash is set up.  Though it is possible, and sometimes required, for an individual to bring his or her own korban (sacrifice), in practice almost all of the actual service in the Mikdash is performed by the priests.  Everyone else is mostly a spectator.  This is all the more true in the context of the regular, public sacrifices, in which ordinary individuals play no part at all besides their annual contribution to the Temple fund out of which those korbanot are bought.


To sum up, though we pray every day for the rebuilding of the Temple, and the Temple service is regarded by the Rabbis as one of three things upon which the world depends,[5]  the worship of God in the Temple is of a radically different nature than our notions of worship.  It is made up of highly ritualized actions (again, I am setting aside the aesthetic/moral issues involved in animal sacrifice), performed by a tiny minority representing the whole of the population.  This sort of worship stands in contrast to our notions of an individualized, spiritual connection with God. 


To be sure, personalized prayer and spiritual connection are far from foreign to the Torah.  The Avot, our forefathers, engaged in both prayer and sacrifices, and they merited prophetic communication with God, which is certainly a personalized spiritual connection.  Throughout the Tanakh, the Bible, such personal connections with God exist alongside the more formalized worship of the Temple or its precursors.[6] Nonetheless, the heart of avodat Hashem remains in the Temple service and the sacrificial rite.


3.         The Instrumental Approach


How are we to understand avodat Hashem that is both extremely ritualized and performed for the public rather than by the public?  One way is to view the significance of the avoda in the Temple as primarily a means to achieve some spiritual state.  Ultimately, avoda is a relationship between individuals and their Creator in which each individual expresses, in some way or another, his or her devotion and commitment to God.  However, human beings do not express themselves very well in abstractions.  We require concrete symbols which provide a context and a framework for making our inner thoughts and feelings explicit.  The ritualized actions of the avoda in the Temple and of ritual mitzvot generally are meant to be such a means to religious expression.  An example of a mitzvathat appears to convey such a symbolic message is tefillin, which the Torah describes as a sign to remind ourselves that God redeemed us from Egypt: "And it shall be for a sign unto you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in thy mouth; for with a strong hand hath the Lord brought you out of Egypt."[7]  Other rituals might play a similar role of reminding us and focusing our attention on deeper values, with those rituals associated with worship particularly focusing our attention on God.


Though this instrumental interpretation of ritual worship certainly has a role, it is very unsatisfying as a complete account of ritual avoda. It does not relate to the public aspect of the Temple service, in which the avoda is performed only by the priests.  Even if we ignore that issue, this explanation, like many instrumental explanations, tends to disrespect the practice itself as valuable. If the point of the practice is the achievement of some inner spiritual state, then there may very well be other means to achieve that state, and they might even be more effective at doing so.  The basic Jewish concept of revealed mitzvot whose normative force is independent of any explanations offered for them (ta'amei ha-mitzvot) does not easily accommodate such instrumentalism as the deep reason for mitzvotMitzvot, especially ritual mitzvot, can certainly be a means to achieving a heightened spiritual awareness, but that function does not exhaust their content.


4.         Dismantling the Gap between Spirit and Practice


Above I asked how the ritualized rite of the Mikdash could achieve the kind of spiritual feeling and connection that worship is about.  The question presumes that there are two realms, the spiritual and the physical, with the spiritual somehow “higher” than the physical.  The goal of worship is to somehow rise above one's physical limitations in order to achieve a spiritual connection with God. 


But do we need to accept the dualistic division of the human experience into the spiritual and the physical?  That radical dualism, along with the priority of the spiritual over the physical, stems from Plato and the Greeks.  Actions, the Torah teaches us, are meaningful in themselves and are not just a means to attain spirituality – they themselves are a mode of connecting with God.


It is important not to confuse this position with that one that accepts the division of the physical and the spiritual but reverses the hierarchy; that is the claim that only physical actions are significant and the spiritual/emotional realm, the meaning or significance that we attribute to the action, is essentially nothing more than an emotional response.  There have been Jewish thinkers who have been inclined in this direction.[8]


The alternative involves the dismantling of the assumption that there can be empty actions: that when one performs a mitzva “mechanically” then it does not mean anything.  Actions, that is, deliberately performed acts performed by conscious beings, are necessarily meaningful: when someone performs a ritual, even without any concentration on its spiritual significance, he or she performs an act of service to God.  Concentration and focus can add significance, but these are addenda to the inherent significance.  Furthermore, this significance is not merely the significance of obeying a commandment – of accepting the yoke of mitzvot.  Actions that we perform, or are performed in front of or for us, have an impact.  When the Ramban (Catalonia, 13th century) explains the significance of the korban olah (the burnt offering) in terms of offering the sacrifice as a surrogate for giving oneself to God (Vayikra 1:9), he is not explicating the conscious intention of the worshipper. Rather, he is explicating the symbolic significance of the act.  Regardless of whether the person performing it is aware of it, this action will have that effect.  The symbolic significance of a ritual is not exhausted by whatever explicit interpretations we attribute to it.  Many of our actions reverberate in ways that we are unaware.  It would be terrible hubris to judge the value or significance of a mitzva solely on the meaning that we find in it.  The potential meaning is infinite, so long as the mitzva continues to be performed.


5.         Public Worship


The public, representative aspects of the avoda in the Mikdash can now be addressed.  Individuals have thoughts, intentions and spiritual lives.  What is unique about the Mikdash is that it brings into being a communal relationship between God and the Jewish people that is much greater than the sum of its parts.  The Mikdash is the locus of connection between God and the Jewish people as an organic whole.  The rituals are performed there by the priests, who do not represent individuals but are rather the priests of the nation.  Since the destruction of the Temple we have lost a great deal of this ability to relate to God as an organic whole and not merely as individuals.  A remnant of that wholeness remains in the institution of the minyan, in which ten men form a tzibbur, a community; there are prayers that are only relevant if they are said by the community.  No doubt the spiritual highs of truly devotional prayer are more difficult to achieve in a minyan, but it is only in a minyan that one can relate to God as a member of the community rather than just as an individual.  The communal aspect of worship does not replace the personal (even in the Mikdash, individuals bring sacrifices); rather, the two complement each other in parallel to the way that ritual action and spiritual focus complement rather than serve each other. 




The conception of worship and avodat Hashem outlined here is, in my opinion, central to Judaism and reflects a deep understanding of human experience as something that resists a dualistic analysis into the spiritual and physical.  It allows us to gain at least a glimpse of why we pray for the rebuilding of the Temple, despite the obvious discomfort that is implicit in that hope.  We are both more than what we can merely think or intend ourselves to be and more than just individuals.  The fact that there is more to human life and our relationship to God than our conscious individual selves is revealed in the performance of mitzvot that we do not wholly understand, as well as in the remnants that we still have of the communal aspect of that relationship.



[1]   In the context of realizing avodat Hashem in the context of prosaic activities, it is worth mentioning two ideas that have arisen in the tradition.  First, the Rambam (Guide part III, chapter 51), describes the highest level of human achievement in which a person lives a kind of dual life.  That is, he goes about his daily activities, making a living and engaging his regular activities, while at the same time, most of his attention is devoted to apprehending God and being connected to Him.  This is a level achieved only by the forefathers and Moshe Rabbeinu, and is the highest level attainable by a human being.  Without going into how such condition is possible, or whether such a diffusion of attention is in fact the ideal, the Rambam in this description is sketching a vision of full avodat Hashem that pervades one's whole life.  For the Rambam the intellectualist, avodat Hashem is focused around intellectual apprehension of God.  The ideal is therefore to maximize both the quantity and quality of such apprehension without giving up one's role as an integrated member of human society. 

            A different way that avodat Hashem has been expanded to include far more than ritualistic activity can be found in the Chasidic notion of avoda be-gashmiyut.  This is a vast topic in itself that I can only mention here.  The basic idea is that service and devotion to God should not be limited to so-called “spiritual” activities but should extend to prosaic activities like eating and drinking, sleeping, conversing with one's fellow, etc.  There is a wide range of understandings of how this works, but here too we find the expansion of avodat Hashem outside the foci of prayer, mitzvot and Talmud Torah.  For more information and discussion about avoda be-gashmiyut, see Tsippi Kaufman (2009), In All Your Ways Know Him: The Concept of God and Avoda be-Gashmiyut in the Early Stages of Hasidism (Hebrew), Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press.

[2]  The debate amongst Chazal and the Rishonim as to whether mitzvot tzerikhot kavvana (mitzvot require the intention to perform them as mitzvot) is about a minimal sort of consciousness while performing a ritual act.  Clearly there is potential for greater awareness than that, especially in the context of mitzvot that are overtly directed at relating to God such as Keriat Shema and prayer. 

[3]  The standard divisions of mitzvot into positive and negative commandments or into bein adam la-Makom (between a person and God) and bein adam la-chavero (between a person and his fellow) do not capture this focus perfectly, though most of the mitzvot that involve conscious avodat Hashem are positive commandments bein adam la-Makom.  Consider, however, refraining from committing adultery in a situation of great temptation (e.g., Yosef encountered by Potiphar's wife) out of unwillingness to sin, or the sacrifices made by previous generations to keep Shabbat and kashrut.

[4]  For a good overview, see Nechama Leibowitz, introduction to the volume on Vayikra in her Studies on Parashat Hashavua.

[5]  Mishna, Avot 1:2.  “Shimon Ha-tzadik … would say, On three things the world depends: on the Torah, on the [Temple] service, and on acts of lovingkindness.” 

[6]  The examples are too many to recount.  I will mention just one: Channa (the mother of Shmuel) prayed to God for a child at the Tabernacle in Shilo, and the Rabbis use the example of her prayer as a source for some the halakhot of prayer.  Channa's prayers were outside the context of the regular sacrifices. 

[7]   Shemot 13:9.

[8]  The locus classicus for this discussion is the Gemara's discussion of the prohibition to praise God for having mercy on a bird’s nest, see Berakhot 33b and Megilla 25a.  One of the explanations offered there for prohibiting this is that such praise attributes mercy to God's commandments, while they are truly decrees.  The extreme reading of this position – that divine commandments have no content outside of the demand for obedience – has not been widely accepted in the tradition.  It is worth noting that one modern thinker, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, has propounded something like this position.  Furthermore, the intensity of focus on the details of halakhic practice, to the exclusion of any other religious expression, that is found in some yeshivish circles seems to reflect, at least implicitly, a similar sort of thinking.