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people around me valued and marked the things that I think are important," she has written ("Ritual: The Next Phase," unpublished).

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. 

When Does an Occasion Need a Ritual?

How do we know when an occasion demands a ritual? Is every moment equally filled with possibility? If, as Myerhoff claims, rituals help us deal with chaos or change or ambiguities, any moment of liminality, of transition from one world to another, calls out to be marked…. We might create a new ritual or use an old one in a new way. We might create a synagogue ceremony or a private meditation. We might write a new berakhah [blessing] or use traditional ones in ways they were not originally intended.

Modern rituals give us some sense of where people feel the blank spaces were in their lives: aging, marriage, separation, divorce, pregnancy, choices about childbirth, nursing, weaning, infertility, giving a baby up for adoption, pregnancy loss, menstruation, death, Rosh Chodesh [day the new Jewish month begins], and holidays. Myerhoff suggests that rituals are necessary in those places where we usually suffer alone: surgery, menopause, retirement, empty nest, and loss. Esther Broner…says that her best customers are people with broken hearts.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein adds to the list: completing a creative project, becoming a grandparent, forgiving yourself for a sin you have committed, celebrating a time of family closeness, first love, first sex, first apartment, planning a wedding, publishing a book, deciding to leave a lover, coming out as a lesbian or a gay man, acknowledging that someone you love is terminally ill, leaving a batterer, reconciling with someone from whom you have been estranged, making aliyah, recovering from an addiction, healing from sexual abuse, and cooking a special family dish with your bubbe's [grandmother's] recipe (Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones, Vol. 1).

I offer this list because I am concerned that we sometimes limit creative rituals to the biological events, particularly in women's lives, which have not been marked. There is a paradox in women creating ritual for biological moments. Women bristle at being tied only to biology; yet, there is a need to sanctify in a Jewish way what our bodies experience. Rachel Adler cautions that "Creating religious metaphors solely out of our biological experience will tend to make us womanists rather than Jews" (Face to Face, Spring, 1981).

Women Central to New Ritual-Making

Women have been the primary initiators of creative ritual. As people who have felt, like Myerhoff, an inevitable sense of exclusion, women have found a connection back to the tradition in large measure, by invention. Because women have not traditionally lived our lives in the public Jewish sphere, women have honored the private realm by sharing it with others through ritual.

Yet, in contrast to T. S. Eliot, who wrote, "Birth, copulation, and death, that's all, that's all, that's all," not only those marginal, but those enfranchised also experience a great deal of contemporary life that the tradition does not address. As Orenstein suggests, "Women's perspectives will call attention to forgotten or neglected issues, broaden Jewish thinking and practice, reopen basic questions from a new vantage point. When we ask, 'What does it mean for a woman... to wrestle with aspects of the tradition from which she is alienated?,' we eventually apply the same question to men, and then to Jews, and still further down the line we get to core questions about God and learning and a holy tradition that has been both shaped and muddled by human hands" ("Women and Jewish Lifecycle: Bridging 'Real Life,' Academics and Popular Literature," unpublished).

When my mother died, I began asking all my observant women friends, "How do Jewish women mourn their mothers?" I was answered with the silence of the tradition. Whatever rituals had been performed hadn't been passed down. My dear friend and teacher, playwright Merle Feld, told me to be idiosyncratic. She gave me permission to create a ritual for this moment of transition.

My mother was an expert knitter. Before she died, I brought knitting needles and yarn to her in the hospital so that she could knit a baby bunting for the child we had not yet conceived. She died unable to knit the bunting.

I began to think about my mother's knitting, of her having taught me to knit--part of her Torah--and I decided to knit the baby bunting I had urged on her and say Kaddish D'Rabbanan, originally said following Torah study in someone's honor, each morning. As I knit with yarn, I knit memory, and during that year I came to make peace with who my mother was, and what her legacy is. I also came to know that life is finite, and realized that it was time to become a mother myself. At our daughter's brit bat (covenant of the daughter ceremony) I gave her the completed bunting, a gift of the journey from death to life….

Myerhoff teaches that a "ritual is an occasion when one takes the chaos within the world and within oneself and pours it into a vessel that gives it shape and gives it order and power and form. A meaning-making activity. Ritual makes authoritative and sacred and axiomatic that which it treats.…"

This can be a breathtaking power, literally the power to make Jews. We who are grounded in Judaism, who live with the power of its reach in our lives, who have the symbols, the texts, the language and the strength of the tradition in our marrow have a central place in the energy and excitement of Jews claiming Judaism for their own. May we celebrate our place and rejoice in our time.

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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.