January 18, 2020

Writing Our Own Rituals for a Modern World

The nature of brachot (blessings) in the Jewish tradition is to elevate the mundane, to make everyday life moments holy by pausing to appreciate them and identify them as special within the myriad moments of a given day. But sometimes a life moment demands more than an uttered blessing: It calls for a ritual.

While the word ritual may, for many, connote something that’s been done repeatedly over decades or centuries (starting the cycle of Torah reading over again every year), or several times over the course of a year (blessing the new moon), in its strictest definition, a ritual is “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” A blessing can be part of a ritual, but technically, a ritual needs more than a blessing to be a ritual.

We have many secular rituals. We wake up, check our phones, visit the bathroom to do what we do there before making coffee; for some, it’s coffee first and then everything else. If we’ve got kids, we wake and dress them, make lunches and take them to school; then we report to work, take a lunch break, go home, make dinner, watch TV, go to sleep. These are a series of actions, but don’t fit the strictest interpretation of being a “religious or solemn ceremony,” all due respect to our morning coffee.  

There are lots of Jewish rituals: throwing bread into a body of water to symbolize the casting off of sins; twirling a chicken overhead while promising to donate it to charity; covering mirrors in a house of mourning; dipping completely beneath the water of the mikveh, the (here it comes, it’s even in the name of the thing) ritual bath, three times until a witness proclaims your immersion “kosher.” These are “official” rituals, validated by rabbis, implemented through decades of communal practice. “Fiddler on the Roof” teaches us that there is a blessing for everything, even the czar, but there isn’t a ritual for everything. Or at least, there isn’t a rabbinically crafted, communally ratified ritual for everything.

“Fiddler on the Roof” teaches us that there is a blessing for everything but there isn’t a ritual for everything.

As participants at the recent (RE)VISION conference hosted by the Jewish Emergent Network earlier this month discovered, meaningful ritual can be crafted by committee or by individuals, not just by rabbinic communal leaders. In two workshops called Ritual 360, Naomi Less, associate director and founding ritual leader of New York’s Lab/Shul, and actress and rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer charged participants to create new Jewish rituals to commemorate occasions that aren’t already Judaically ritualized.

Two groups focused on rituals around moving into or out of a house: While the ritual included mezuzahs, they were not central, making way for things like collecting one last item from each room, inspired by the search for chametz the night before Passover, and reciting quotes from Jewish liturgy and/or popular culture that center on the theme of “home.” One group created a Jewish memorial service for a beloved pet, which included sharing favorite memories, and some Hebrew readings about God’s role in creating all creatures, big and small. And the final group did a dramatic improvisation of two parents marking their teenager’s receipt of his driver’s license, including the traveler’s prayer, to remind the teen of God’s role in making sure we reach our destinations. In the future, this ritual definitely should be called a “car mitzvah.”

As a non-rabbi with lots of ritual experience from a lifetime of living Jewishly, the ideas about how to mark transitional moments meaningfully came to me fluidly. I drew on my day school education, my knowledge of the liturgy, Camp Ramah, my literary experience of symbolism, my love of finding just the right words, and my knowledge of popular culture to help craft a ritual that was meaningful, personalizable and accessible. But in the back of my mind lurked a rogue snippet of educational code that cried out in panic: that ritual is for rabbis and religious leaders to create, and for the community to repeat.

This workshop presented the idea that ritual is at its best when it’s crafted with personal meaning. It can include a rabbi, but it doesn’t require one. We are required only to listen to ourselves, to think deeply about the moment we are trying to mark with ceremony, to identify the way in which this moment will transform us, and find the symbolic objects that will play a role in elevating that occasion as holy.