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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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.