The Ceremonial Law Sanctifies the Body
Before the act of fulfilling one of the ceremonial commandments, such as eating matzah on Passover, the Jew recites a blessing: Blessed art Thou, L-rd our G-d, who has sanctified us with his commandments and command us to …[whatever the commandment may be]. This blessing is only recited when the commandment requires a physical act, such as eating matzah, lighting candles, etc. The reason is that the sanctification to which the blessing refers is the sanctification of the body. So the blessing is not recited, for example, before prayer, since prayer is essentially an act of the heart and mind rather than the body. Nor is it recited for observing a prohibition, such as not eating forbidden flesh, because the restraint required is not an act of the body but an act of the will.
The sanctification of the body is important because, as St. Paul points out in Romans 7, the law of sin, i.e., the impulse to sin, resides in the body. The sanctification of the body through the repeated acts of obedience to the ceremonial law is directed to uprooting that impulse to sin.
One of the most basic reasons given to explain why the Christian does not need to keep the ceremonial law argues that he actually does keep it, and in the most perfect way, for he keeps its spiritual meaning, the idea which the Law was intending to instill. But if the purpose of the ceremonial law is to sanctify the body by requiring a physical act in devotion to G-d, then, clearly, the idea of the commandment cannot replace the physical act of keeping it. To replace the physical with the spiritual is to abandon the sanctification of the body.
It is much easier to subdue the body than to subdue the heart. St. Paul makes that clear when he tells us that he was “under the Law blameless” (Phi. 3:6) and capable of “a righteousness of my own, based on law,” but incapable of interior devotion without “the “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9). Jesus perfected the Law not by replacing the physical with the spiritual, the external act with a corresponding spiritual act, but by purifying the heart and liberating it to act together with the body in the performance of G-d’s commandments.
You might say, if the heart is pure, then the body will also be pure, so why should the Catholic Jew bother with the ceremonial law?
The acts required by the Ceremonial Law are comparable to the acquired moral virtues, of which the primary are the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. These virtues are acquired by “the repetition of acts under the direction of more or less cultivated natural reason,” and can exist even in a man in the state of mortal sin. (Fr. Lagrange, Three Ages of the Interior Life, Part 1:3:3)
The comparison between the ceremonial law and the acquired moral virtues is suggested by St. Paul, who indicates that “a righteousness of my own based on law” is sufficient for the blameless observance of the Law. And, indeed, the observance of the ceremonial law, like the acquried moral virtues, is normally instilled by repetition, for the Jew is instructed in directed in the practice of the ceremonial law from childhood.
Fr. Lagrange points out that even though the infused virtues are far more exalted than the acquired virtues, the acquired virtues greatly facilitate the exercise of the infused virtues. “…the facility of virtuous acts is not assured in the same way by the infused moral virtues as by the acquired moral virtues. The infused virtues give an intrinsic facility, without always excluding the extrinsic obstacles; whereas these extrinsic obstacles are excluded by the repetition of acts that engender the acquired virtues.” (Ibid.) He gives the example of a drunkard who makes a confession with sufficient attrition and, by absolution receives the infused moral virtues, including temperance. But even though the virtue has been infused, it doesn’t mean he has acquired it. “The infused virtue that he receives gives him a certain intrinsic facility for the exercise of the obligatory acts of sobriety; but this infused virtue does not exclude the extrinsic obstacles which would be eliminated by the repetition of the acts that engender acquired temperance.” In other words, acquired virtues have an important role to play in the exercise of the infused virtues.
Similarly, purity of heart gives a certain “intrinsic facility” for using the body to serve G-d, but it does not exclude the “extrinsic obstacles” that are eliminated by repetition of the acts that sanctity the body. The virtues are best “exercised simultaneously in such a way that the acquired virtue is subordinated to the infused virtue as a favorable disposition.” (Ibid.) Similarly, purity of heart is best exercised in such a way that the commandments are subordinated to it as a favorable disposition, i.e., as a disposition acquired through education and repetition that facilitates the expression in act of that purity. Even for the Catholic Jew who, through the sacraments, receives the grace that disposes his heart to purity, the observances of the ceremonial law retain their great spiritual value of sanctifying the body. For without the sanctification which they instill, it is much harder to exercise the virtues infused by grace.