New Jewish Lifecycle Rituals

New Jewish rituals give meaning to formerly private moments and integrate the ritual-maker into the Jewish community.

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Excerpted with permission from Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Insights and Activities (A.R.E. Publishing, Inc.).

Recent years have seen an explosion of new Jewish rituals. From mimeographed rituals to Xeroxed rituals to desktop-published rituals to rituals that have been performed but not recorded, the willingness to capture the large and small moments of our lives through ritual has become part of the landscape of Jewish life….

Rituals Mark Moments and Invest Them With Meaning

Why are so many Jews creating new rituals? Rabbi Laura Geller, one of the first women rabbis, tells about her epiphany at Hebrew Union College when one of her teachers said, “There are no important moments in a Jew’s life for which there is not a blessing,” and, daydreaming, Laura started cataloguing all the moments in her life which had gone unmarked.

Rabbi Margaret Holub shares a story [about a ritual devised to help a two-year-old transition from crib to “big boy bed.” Reading] this description of a ritual moment, this acknowledgment of a moment of transition, touched [Holub] deeply. “How different my childhood, indeed my adulthood would be, if people around me valued and marked the things that I think are important,” she has written (“Ritual: The Next Phase,” unpublished).

Rituals of the kitchen and bedroom variety and rituals of the religious variety are an integral part of human experience. For those who live in Jewish rhythms, the desire to mark those occasions of importance, of transition, with rituals that affirm both our individual and our communal life, has prompted us to invention.

Ritual and liturgy are analogous to sign language. One who is deaf has as much desire to communicate as one who hears, but often needs sign language to do so. Similarly, ritual and liturgy become tools for communicating meaning. For the language of ritual to serve the purpose of communication, there must be those who share and can use its tools and those who receive and understand the messages.

In doing Jewish ritual, we are attempting to etch Jewish meanings into the lives and souls and bodies of Jews. Ritual both gives people access to Judaism and shapes their sense of themselves as Jews. In the atomized modern world in which we live, rituals place the individual in community, in continuity. Rituals create a place.

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Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann is the Senior Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University. She teaches and lectures widely on Jewish feminism, rabbinical ethics, the relationship between religion and education, and social justice.

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