Inventing Jewish Ritual

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I just finished Vanessa Och’s book Inventing Jewish Ritual, which not only investigates the development, acceptance, and theory of new rituals, but goes through a few case studies of these new ceremonies.

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I admit, I was afraid this book was going to be hokey. Even for those of us who consider themselves to be modern, liberal Jews, some of these new ceremonies cross the line from spiritually innovative to weird.

But Ochs’s book was enlightening. Partly because she explains the scholarly approaches to studying material culture, change, and innovation. But mostly because her tone is candid and casual but highly informed. She presents the stories of ritual creation in a non-intimidating way.

One of my favorite explanations relates what is needed to invent ritual. She describes a “Jewish ritual toolbox.” Sounds a little silly at first. But she as writes, there are three compartments:

The first is text. While the basics are the bible, rabbinic literature and prayer, they can be reworked for “contemporary sensibilities and situations.”

The second is familiar ritual actions and objects. Smashing a glass, smelling spice, building temporary dwellings and prayer books, candles, shofars. By using already existing ritual, people feel ownership over their new rituals.

The third is “enduring core Jewish understandings.” Such as “the significance of preserving Jewish memory through study and all the ethical obligations held toward fellow Jews and all of humankind. A commitment to such core understandings is the compass that guides all Jewish innovation.”

It seems so straightforward, yet there is no way I would have understood ritual in this way without Och’s book.

The case studies go on to explain the creation niggunim (songs without words), Miriam’s Tambourine, Holocaust Torah, and wedding booklets.

With an open mind, this book is a fascinating read that gives insight into a practice rarely discussed.

Posted on October 24, 2007

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2 thoughts on “Inventing Jewish Ritual

  1. mnorton

    Dear Meredith,

    I appreciated this book review of Vanessa Ochs’ Inventing Jewish Ritual. Which of the rituals she wrote on did you find most compelling? Also, I have to ask what the figure is on the cover of the book and what role it plays in her narrative.

    I wanted to follow up with you on a comment you left on my post, “Asessing the Health and Success of Jewish Organizations”. Steven Windmueller’s article was published in 1999, so the figures for the number of Jewish organizations source from this period. Do you think there has been a significant shift in numbers (if so, why)?

    I hope this has been helpful.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    Maya Norton
    The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy

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