New Jewish Lifecycle Rituals

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

Print this page Print this page

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people around me valued and marked the things that I think are important," she has written ("Ritual: The Next Phase," unpublished).

pregnant woman with husbandRituals 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.

Few people have taught the Jewish community as much about valuing ritual and story as Barbara Myerhoff…, [who wrote], "Ritual is the enactment of a wish. It is the display of a state of mind. And above all, it is a performative enterprise. It is made up of symbols, almost always that deal with ambiguities or paradoxes....

"Ritual subverts, undermines the cognitive and critical faculties... and glosses the contradictions and paradoxes. In ritual, it is the doing that is the believing. And the doer, being your own body, is singularly persuasive, because it is your own experience that finally persuades you.

"Ritual makes things sacred. It sets them apart. It sanctifies them by announcing and calling attention to their specialness. Ritual is formalized, stylized, artificial" ("Sanctifying Women's Lives Through Ritual," unpublished).

We create ritual, then, to ennoble the everyday. Doing ritual is, at base, a Jewish enterprise, complementing the tradition of praising God with 100 brakhot a day, of noticing and calling attention to what is around us. Yet, having lost so much of daily practice, and living in the contemporary world, it becomes necessary to reconstruct or invent. 

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann

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.