Passageless Rites

While some meaningful life events go by without any ritual to mark them, too often rituals take place without the participants experiencing any significant meaning.

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The author describes here what he calls "passagesless rites"--rituals and ceremonies in which the participants are going through the motions, but not accessing much (if any) meaning in their performance and celebration. Reprinted with permission from Finding Each Other in Judaism, (UAHC Press, New York).

Passageless rites convert the covenantal brit[milah--circumcision] ceremony into a surgical procedure; the bar or bat mitzvah into a birthday party; the wedding into a ceremony centered around the caterer's menu, the florist's display, and the photographer's angles; the divorce into a mechanical dissolution of a contract; and the funeral into a black-bordered obituary announcing the time and place of the disposal of the body.

"Ceremony" has entered our vocabulary as a definition of boredom and irrelevance. Webster's Third International Dictionary defines a ceremony as "an action performed with formality but lacking deep significance, form, or effect." The opportunity for the transmission of the wisdom and poetry of Judaism and, with it, the chance to connect as a family is squandered, and in its place emerges the kind of perfunctory performance against which the prophet Isaiah in­veighed:

"Because that people has approached Me with its mouth and honored Me with the lips, but has kept their heart far from Me, and its worship of Me has become a commandment of men learned by rote, truly I shall further baffle that people with bafflement upon bafflement, and the wisdom of its wise shall fail, and the prudence of its prudent shall vanish" (Isaiah 29:13-14).

For many today, the rituals of life passage are experienced merely as prescriptions and proscriptions bereft of the grace and wisdom of rationale. The myths and poetry, ethics and philosophy of a civilization that underlie the rites of passage are buried beneath the sands of ritual routine.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis

Harold Schulweis is the senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California. He is the founder of Jewish Foundation for Rescuers and the author of For Those Who Can't Believe.