Why Do We Have Lifecycle Rituals?

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A reflective student of Judaism might well ask, "So, Rabbi, do Jewish lifecycle ceremonies and rituals bring about transformation, or do they celebrate, reflect, and channel changes that are already taking place?" Her rabbi, whether a thoughtful teacher or a smart aleck, will most likely answer: "Yes."

A baby is born, but ceremony functions to reinforced her identity for her family and community. A child reaches adolescence, but ritual reminds him and his congregation of his new responsibilities. A couple falls in love, but a ceremony under a wedding canopy transforms them from mere lovers to committed, covenantal partners. A person dies, but the preparation of his body for burial expresses core beliefs of his people--among them, that we are responsible for deep acts of caring for each other, that the human body is to be treated with sanctity, and that the transition from life to death has meaning.

By and large, since the destruction of the ancient temples with their functioning priesthood, Judaism does not have "sacraments" that must be carried out only by authorized individuals, and without which a person cannot be considered part of a covenantal community. A Jewish boy uncircumcised is still fully a Jew (albeit one not in compliance with traditional Jewish law); a Jewish girl at 12 or 13 who has not publicly celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah is still fully subject to all the expectations for a Jewish adult. Being born Jewish carries with it an identity that ritual can reinforce but does not create from whole cloth. (The case of conversion to Judaism is something of an exception: While conversion reflects a shift in identity and identification with the Jewish people that has often already taken place, since rabbinic times rituals have been necessary for a person to actually become a Jew.)

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