Studying New Ritual

Looking through the lens of material culture.

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Reprinted with permission from Inventing Jewish Ritual (The Jewish Publication Society).

Religious people are intimately acquainted with material culture: ordinary objects such as bread, wine, hats, shawls, chairs, golden rings, and roasted eggs create, express, embody, and reflect sacredness. For sacredness, one could substitute such words as holiness, sanctity, separateness, and specialness. Or one could use the Jewish term that describes all abstract and concrete movements toward sacredness: kedushah.

Gazing at new ritual through the lens of material culture, we may come to question the dualisms of religious life once taken for granted: sacred/profane, mind/ body, theoretical/practical, beliefs/practices, divine/human, things/people, and of course spiritual/material. We can discover that such dualisms do not fully and accurately describe reality or even our own experience of reality.

Even if we were to define the spiritual and the material as polar opposites and were to continue to privilege the spiritual (that is, the disembodied idea, the celestial, and the cerebral) over the material, we still cannot ignore the significance of materiality in the way religion is lived. One of anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff's elderly Jewish informants tells a story, which he attributes to Martin Buber, that nicely articulates this idea:

It tells here about two men who are worried about the holiness of the Sabbath. "What is it that makes something holy?" they ask. They decide to make a test to see what happens when they have Sabbath on a weekday. So they make the Sabbath in the middle of the week, everything they do right, and it feels the same way as on Saturday. This is alarming, so they take the problem to the rabbi to explain. Here is what the rabbi tells them: "lf you put on Sabbath clothes and Sabbath caps it is quite right that you had a feeling of Sabbath holiness. Because Sabbath clothes and Sabbath caps have the power of drawing the light of the Sabbath holiness down to earth."

The Importance of New Ritual Objects

Material objects are not merely substitutes for the stuff of greater weight and value that counts more or means more in the academic and even cosmic schemes of things-such as ideas and ideologies expressed in texts or beliefs held by a people, in their theological discussions, and in their dutifully recited articles of faith. I am not suggesting that as we study the objects of new rituals, we will discover that they are more eloquent, more instructive, or more essential than sacred texts and beliefs in constructing religiosity, establishing religions identity, or studying religions.

I am suggesting, however, that the new ritual objects are equally eloquent and pivotal. John Cort once proposed that scholars of religion ask this question: What would happen if we looked at text-heavy religions and those less bound by text, with "material culture as our starting point? If we look first at the objects and base our attempts at understanding on them, will we emerge from our study with a different view of the tradition?"

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Vanessa Ochs

Vanessa Ochs is the Ida and Nathan Kolodiz Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia and associate professor of Religious Studies.