Q. Which is more important in Judaism – rituals or ethics?
A. It is a problem that resounds through the Bible. King Solomon says in the Book of Proverbs, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3). A similar thought is found in I Sam. 15:22 and in other passages also. These verses do not say that sacrifices and other rituals are not valuable but that they must be performed together with righteousness and justice. Proste frumkeit – ritual without righteousness – is no great achievement.
In that sense righteousness and justice are better in God’s eyes than ritual punctiliousness. However, ethical conduct is inadequate without prayer and mitzvot.
Note that the verse refers to two ethical subjects – righteousness and justice – which in Hebrew are tz’dakah and mishpat. Tz’dakah is sometimes narrowly understood as charity in the financial sense, but it has a wider connotation of love, concern and care for other people in both acts and attitudes, which includes but is not limited to giving them monetary support. Mishpat means being fair and even-handed to them, especially in the broader context of how they are treated in and by the community.
The mark of a good society is that people live by both tz’dakah and mishpat; the mark of a good Jewish society is that they also carry out the mitzvot between man and God.