Traditionalism Confronts Lifecycle Innovation

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

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Some traditionalists are more open to the idea of adapting traditional ritual, like a woman’s monthly immersion in a mikveh, or ritual bath, for new purposes--for example to mark the end of chemotherapy, infertility treatment, or the month after a parent has died (the shloshim).This adaptation is not outright forbidden, says David Weiss HaLivni, scholar of rabbinic texts and professor of religion at Columbia University. But, he says, the basis for the ritual “has to be referred to somewhere in the sources” of Jewish law.

The language of blessings and prayers used in new ceremonies is also of concern to those with a traditional viewpoint. The inherited notion that new blessings may not be invented, as well as a concern about taking the Divine name in vain, raises red flags when new or transformed rituals and ceremonies include new blessings that use the traditional formula of “Barukh Atah—Blessed are You Adonai our God…”, or (on the other hand) use new language and names to refer to God.  Neither of these sits well with those who take seriously the desire avoid invoking God’s name inappropriately, or the notion of a bracha l’vatalah, a “blessing in vain”.

Individual and Community

A key question for traditionalists, when it comes to considering the introduction of a new ritual, prayer, or ceremony, is whether its genesis lies in the needs of the community, or the needs of an individual. Invariably, anything emerging out of an individual’s particular need (as new lifecycle rituals, especially at first, are likely to be) is viewed as suspect and as an outgrowth of modern society’s focus on the “self.” Innovations for the benefit of the entire community--like the introduction in recent decades of a prayer for the State of Israel, even into Orthodox worship services--are, at times, more acceptable.

Laypeople’s Limitations

Even those in the traditionalist camp who are most open to the idea of lifecycle ritual innovation warn of risks when laypeople take responsibility for something as serious as a religious ritual into their own, creative hands. Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual advisor to the students at Yeshiva University, was once staying in the Jerusalem hotel where a conference of feminist Orthodox Jews was also meeting. Curious, he stopped in on the session devoted to simchat bat.

Those speaking at the session fell into two groups, said Rabbi Blau: those who slightly modified existing rituals to welcome their daughters, and those who created their own.

The problem was that those in the latter category sometimes proposed things that were inappropriate or even highly problematic, because of the speakers’ “lack of full halakhic sophistication,” said Rabbi Blau.  He cited as an example what he perceived as a misuse of the word kiddush (which refers to the sanctification of Shabbat or a holiday recited over a cup of wine or grape juice) to refer to an original blessing that one woman composed and recited at her daughter’s simchat bat.

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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