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.
Today, assumptions about the natural progression and inevitability of life cycle passages, particularly those based on the traditional nuclear family, serve to distance some Jews from the community rather than bringing them closer to it. Many contemporary Jewish families are not conventional in structure and may feel that they do not "fit" into the community with its traditional institutions and rituals. Divorced parents and stepparents may feel uneasy at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or their children's wedding ceremonies. Never-married singles and single parents may avoid certain communal occasions. All this is further compounded in the case of a mixed marriage or remarriage. Even when a spouse, parent, or stepparent converts to Judaism, the fact that the extended family does not follow suit means that whole sets of relatives, including grandparents or mothers- and fathers-in-law, may not relate to important Jewish rituals.
Life cycle rituals are continually evolving to suit new social roles; if they fail to do so, then over time they cease to be the democratic constants that have always undergirded the Jewish community. Of course, this process requires that the richness of tradition and the historical and familial associations embedded in the rituals be balanced with the need for change. Living as we do in an age of transition, we will probably see many innovations tried but only a few retained as integral to the living tradition.
Rela M. Geffen is President of Baltimore Hebrew College and is on the editorial advisory committee of Sh'ma magazine.
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