Jewish Tradition and the Lifecycle

Jewish lifecycle rituals reflect a communal orientation, the democratic nature of traditions, the relationship between the biological and the social, and the inevitability of evolution and change.

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This article is excerpted from Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism  (Jewish Publication Society), and is reprinted with permission.

The terms "celebration"and "renewal" reflect Judaism's positive perspective on the unending circle of life from conception through death and back again to life through the continuity of the generations. Even at the close of a period of mourning, one Jew says to another, "Af simchas"--let us come together again at times of joy. Just after a baby boy undergoes the pain of circumcision, the tension in the room is often released in laughter as the person who names the baby, most often the mohel (ritual circumciser), wishes his parents the joy of bring­ing their son to the wedding canopy.

What might easily be construed as a ludicrous blessing for an eight-day-old infant actually reflects a communal orientation filled with hope. The ritual belongs not only to the life story of those in the child's immediate family; it also reminds those present of similar ceremonies held at far-off times and places as well as of other birth ceremonies that they themselves have attended. Thus this moment links them to other Jews across space and time, tying their personal history with that of the Jewish people.

newborn with grandfather, lifecycleThe great French sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote about the importance of public ritual life for maintaining and strengthening group norms. He noted, for instance, that many people feel cheated when a bride and groom elope. Look around at a wedding ceremony and you will see couples reliving their own special moments. They may even mouth the words of the wedding formula or of

the seven benedictions. It is the ritual familiarity of the ceremony that enhances its power. The very routineness of the passage infuses it with communal and historical meaning for the celebrants, while at the same time reinforcing memories of similar moments in the lives of the congre­gation. Understanding this aspect of human nature--the need to affirm family continuity within a public context--the rabbis ordained that life's passages be marked in the presence of a quorum, the minimum definition of community. For this reason, circumcision, marriage, and kaddish [recited by mourners] require the presence of a minyan.

The Fundamentally Democratic Nature of Life Cycle Ritual

In addition to connecting the communal and private histories of spec­tators and participants, life cycle rituals mark significant life stages expe­rienced by most human beings. These rituals, then, represent the most democratic of ceremonials: They are the great levelers. The rabbis dem­onstrated their understanding of such universality when they wrote in the Talmud (Moed Katan 27a-b) that rich and poor alike should be buried on the simplest of biers in plain shrouds. Like the Amish code, the rabbinic message conveyed the sense that "plain" is the highest accolade. Thus the rabbis affirmed the right of all members of society publicly to mark life cycle events with honor, regardless of social class, gender or intellectual achievement.

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Rela M. Geffen is the President of Baltimore Hebrew University and former Dean of Gratz College. A founding Fellow of the Center for Jewish Community Studies, the forerunner of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, her books include The Conservative Movement in Judaism: Dilemmas & Opportunities (2000); Freedom and Responsibility: Exploring the Challenges of Jewish Continuity (1998); and Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism (1993).