Traditionalism Confronts Lifecycle Innovation

Traditionalist Jews have many objections to new, or renewed, lifecycle ceremonies.

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Contemporary feminism has clearly been a central influence in the recent flourishing of new Jewish rituals, as well as the reclamation and transformation of older ones. Many Jews experience this growing phenomenon as a positive development, one which opens up opportunities for them to feel more personally connected to their religion.lifecycle ritual

But for traditionalist Jews—most of Orthodoxy, some within the Conservative movement, and even occasional voices in the more liberal denominations--the development of new approaches to ritual can be deeply problematic, raising concerns about the need to follow authentically in the footsteps of our sages, maintain appropriate liturgical conservatism, and focus on the requirements of tradition more than the needs of the individuals—or the influences of contemporary societal norms.

Traditionalism Under Siege

Without question, the traditionally oriented favor the preservation of existing rituals, liturgy, and customs over any ritual innovation. Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1763-1838) of Bratislava, who was known as the Chatam Sofer and is regarded as the one of the greatest Torah scholars of his time, summed it up rather pithily when he declared: “All that is novel (in religious practice) is forbidden by the Torah.”

At the time that he made that statement, he was guiding thousands of religious Jews deeper into the foundations of Jewish law and life, even as the Enlightenment and new Reform movement were taking hold in Europe around them. Traditionalist Jewry at that time felt under siege by these new movements--much as it does today as it confronts the many modern influences which it considers corrosive of Judaism’s core values.

Responses to Feminism

In the view of many traditionalists, feminism is a byproduct of secularism, and its impact on ritual is therefore not authentically Jewish. Totally new rituals which have been clearly inspired by feminist perspectives--like the simchat bat or brit bat, and the simchat chochmah, the celebration of wisdom observed by a growing number of women (and a few men) as they turn 60 and leave middle age for the next stage of their lives--are largely viewed as being completely inauthentic.

Those on the right wing of the traditionalist camp say that women’s desire to find places for their own voices within Judaism reflects their lack of awareness, understanding or appreciation of the beauty of their traditional role, where their influence is centered in the home rather than the synagogue, and in private roles rather than public ones.

On Adding New Rituals and Prayers, and Transforming Old Ones

While welcoming ceremonies for girls are not wholly uncommon within “left wing” Orthodoxy, in many traditionalist circles, the simchat bat or brit bat is seen as an imitation of the brit milah, contravening the traditional view that mere human beings may not add to the list of mitzvot which God has commanded. A brit milah is commanded. A brit bat may seem desirable, but to construe it as a mitzvah—or its rituals as covenantal ones--remains forbidden, or at least highly distasteful.

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.