For a while, I attended a gym (no longer convenient to me) with an interesting regimen. I worked out twice a week for about twenty minutes at a time. During that time, I rotated among a few machines for very slow intensive muscle work. The notion was to exhaust the muscle in two minutes or so.
I know it sounds ridiculous, but I investigated it thoroughly. The literature may or may not have had strong scientific grounding, but it changed my theology of Jewish law.
The founder of this program asked a basic question: how do you build muscle strength? His answer was: by breaking down the muscle tissue and allowing it to rebuild. That, he said, was best effected by slow and intense repetitions, not by rapid repetitive motions. He formulated it in an intriguing way. If the goal was to work the muscle, use his method. If the goal was to work the exercise machine, go for quantity over quality.
As a rabbi, of course I look for a sermon in everything. And here was one about Jewish law. I thought of a lesson I learned one day while waiting for the tenth man for a minyan at an orthodox synagogue. The rabbi discussed the change in liturgy that occurs at the end of Sukkot (Tabernacles). In the central prayer, words reminding God to cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall are added as the fall festivals conclude. But what happens if an inattentive worshiper, used to omitting those words during the summer, can’t remember if they were recited? In certain cases, the entire central prayer must be repeated. However, if it had been thirty days, it was assumed that the worshiper was habituated to it. Now, during thirty days, a pious worshiper would recite that prayer about 97 times (trust me). And so, said the rabbi giving the lesson, it became the custom of some seminary students to gather on the night the holiday concluded and chant those words 97 times. (Take one down and pass it around…)
I remember laughing (to the disapproval of the rabbi) at the absurdity. The notion was one of habituation, not literally repeating the words in rapid succession to tick them off a list!
But all those years later, here I was reading about the purpose of exercise and realizing I might very well have been doing the same thing…both on the bicep curl machine and in the performance of my religious duties. It wasn’t about speed and facility – that was just working the machine. If I wanted to strengthen my muscles and my soul, slow and intense was better.
This idea, of course, goes against everything I believed about Jewish law. It is comprehensive, made up primarily of mitzvot (commandments) meant to address every aspect of life. Mediterranean Jewish culture even commends reciting one hundred distinct blessings a day. There are grand expectations (compassionate behavior, formal garb for prayer, immersion in sacred literature) and small expectations (hand-washing, head-covering, pleasant greetings). Being a devoted Jew can be a full-time endeavor.
But the kind of rapid-fire devotion that goes for quantity over quality works the system, not the soul. The younger version of me, enamored as I was of my increasing immersion in Jewish life, collected observances like baseball cards. That sounds more frivolous than I mean it, but any kid who collects baseball cards will tell you it's very serious business.
The struggle over the years was to recapture the meaning that these practices held when they were new. Like the liturgical addition about wind and rain, initially I had to pay attention to be sure I got it right. After a while, when I became habituated, I could just presume I did it because I always did it.
Recapturing the elevating aspects of a traditional Jewish life has come to mean, ironically, doing less. Never mind what I have given up – don't worry that I am somehow no longer devoted or traditionally observant. But appreciating what makes Jewish law "work" for me means slower, fewer, more intense. It means mindfulness. It means being aware of God rather than just doing what (we have decided) God wants.
My dear friend Rabbi Irwin Kula has embarked on an audacious study of whether the commandments are achieving their purposes; can we develop metrics to determine if observance "X" makes you a better person, a wiser person, a more spiritually sophisticated person. I am anxiously awaiting the results that will make Jewish wisdom more readily available to a world in desperate need of it. But I know the answer for myself.
When I perform any mitzvah with heart, soul and might, that is, with intention, attention and intensity, it strengthens me in ways 97 mindless actions, even if those actions are what a God wants, simply cannot equal.