This week we reach the very middle of the Torah. In the parashiyot of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, we read the central chapters of the middle book of the Torah (Leviticus, Vayikra). Needless to say, position matters -- nothing in the Torah is where it is without a reason.
Some scholars look at Leviticus Ch. 16 as the center of the Torah. This chapter details the biblical ritual of Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol would enter the Holy of Holies to purify it from a year of Israel's sins. Others regard Ch. 19 as the true center. This is the "Holiness Code", in which the Israelites are commanded, "Be holy, for I Adonai your God am holy."
We could regard the two views as one. Both address the relationship between the day-to-day actions of the community, and certain key rituals. The Yom Kippur ritual is a response to the whole ethical (and spiritual) life that the community has lived. It was a necessary periodic purification, on a large scale -- at the very center of the Israelite camp, where God's presence was most felt.
Chapter 19 elaborates the interconnection of ritual and ethics. The laws in this chapter completely interweave -- revering parents, observing Shabbat, leaving food in the field for the poor, the proper manner of eating sacrifices, loving your neighbor, not eating blood, honest conduct of business. It's not ritual, then ethics, or the other way around. The Torah is not presenting us with a difference.
Do we need both? One part of the answer is easy. One of the participants in Noreen's class quoted Shakespeare: "The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose." Nachmanides said: It is possible to be a scoundrel within the boundaries of Torah. So yes, ritual on its own does not guarantee goodness or holiness.
Can you be good or holy without ritual? Obviously, yes. But here's how I look at it: If you're trying to be more ethical, rituals can help. It's easier to be thankful if every day or every Shabbat you have a prayerbook with the Modim section in the Amidah: "We are thankful to You..." with a list of the many blessings. It is easier to watch our speech if you regularly say: "Adonai, guard my tongue from evil." It is easier to pursue justice if you recall regularly a God of justice, who rescued us from slavery. It is easier to do teshuvah, to make ourselves change, when we have set times in the year that remind us to do it.
Does that mean rituals are a crutch? I'd say they are more of a tool. What's wrong with that?