Studying New Ritual

Looking through the lens of material culture.

Print this page Print this page

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?"

People living and constructing religious, spiritual lives know that objects are teachers and objects are revelatory. They know it in their very bodies. "People," writes historian of religions Colleen McDannell, "build religion into the landscape, they make and buy pious images for their homes, and they wear special reminders of the faith next to their bodies. ... It is the continual interaction with objects and images that makes one religious in a particular manner?

We make objects because objects make us, and objects make us because we make objects. If this were not the case in Judaism, the central mitzvah (sacred obligation) of Passover would be reading about or contemplating bondage in Egypt; but it is not. Were the real matzah (which, by sacred obligation, one bakes or buys, displays, eats, and hides) less important than the abstract idea of matzah, Jews might read, think, discuss, and remember matzah, and neither make, use, point to, nor consume it. Rather, the experience of bondage, the memory of bondage, and the possibility of new expressions of bondage are made tangibly present in the matzah, the flat cracker that proclaims in its shape, taste, crumbling fragility, and digestive aftereffect: "This is not-bread, this is the not-bread of affliction."

The matzah matters, then, as does the box it comes in, the brand name, the country of provenance (especially when it is Israel), and the competing sale prices at Waldbaum's and the Food Emporium, published annually as full-page ads in The New York Times. The imprint of the rabbi's name matters, as it certifies, endorses, and extends enduring blessing to the purchased matzah. The specially chosen plate reserved for this use matters, and so does the cover placed upon it (perhaps crude but beloved, for it was made by one's child back in nursery school; perhaps costly and beautiful, designed and embroidered by artisans and representing one's good taste).

And it matters where on the Passover table the matzah is placed, and who sits nearest to it, and who is selected to uncover it, point to it, bless it, divide it for others, and determine who gets it first and who gets what size. It matters who piles the matzah high with horseradish (store bought or homemade) and haroset (Ashkenazic style, with apples and nuts, or Sephardic style, with dates and figs) and who is chosen to hide it, who to find it, and who to subsidize the reward for its discoverer. And what an important thing the hiding and finding is, for only when the hidden matzah is retrieved can the Passover seder conclude.

The Spiritual Is Material

In Judaism, the spiritual is material. Without things, there is no Passover, only an idea of Passover. And a fuzzy idea it would be, like honor, loyalty, and remorse; perhaps like God; and more surely, like monotheism. How precisely do objects denote one's belonging, one's participation, and even one's convictions?

If we look at Orthodox dating Web sites on the Internet, we will see that men submitting their personal profiles are often asked to designate the group to which they belong, or the ideology they hold, by describing an object: the particular head covering they wear--a black hat, or a kippah (yarmulke) made of yarn, cloth, leather, or suede. Some will volunteer when they cover their heads (all the time, at meals, for prayer); others will offer that they wear tefillin (prayer straps) when they pray. Women will designate their religious profile by objects too: they will say they wear only dresses and skirts, or will admit to wearing pants. Some women indicate if and how they intend to cover their heads after marriage: with a hat, scarf, snood, beret, or wig.

Objects also indicate the intensity of our fellow Jews' commitment and connection to certain fundamental indicators of Jewish life and help establish the particular community to which they belong. Listen to Jews interrogate each other. We do not typically ask. "Do you believe in God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might?" We will not ask, "Do you remember that God rested on the Sabbath day by keeping it holy?"

Rather, we inquire about the materiality of enacted beliefs and habits of conviction: "Do you drive a car on Shabbat? Carry keys? In your house, do you separate your meat and milk dishes in different cabinets and have two sinks? Do you cover your head, wear a wig, put on tefillin, hang a mezuzah on your door, sleep in separate beds (to observe the laws of family purity), eat uncooked foods (like salad) at nonkosher restaurants, light menorahs, spin dreidels?" The objects tell the story…

The Spiritual Life of Objects

Objects construct and play roles in the Jewish spiritual lives of individuals and communities. Can we then go so far as to speak of objects as having religious or spiritual lives as well?" Are objects spiritual agents? Independent of people who can perceive the sanctity of objects, can objects be autonomous sources of the sacred, provocateurs of sacred experience? Let us consider, for instance, the following question: is a Torah scroll holy regard less of whether someone recognizes holiness in it or attributes holiness to it?

French Sociologist Marcel Mauss, in his classic study of the nature of the gift and gift exchange, explains that a thing can possess spiritual power. In particular, when a thing is given as a gift, it possesses a soul, and "it follows that to make a gift of something to someone is to make a present of some part of oneself." Gift giving, and endless rounds of reciprocation, represent for Mauss an intermingling of the sacred and the material: "Souls are mixed with things; things with souls. Lives are mingled together; and this is how, among things and persons so intermingled, emerges from their own sphere and mixes together."

If we could, like Mauss, imagine objects having spiritual agency, might we speak about the spiritual lives of Jewish objects in particular? What special characteristics do Jewish objects--or objects characteristically used by Jews in predictable ways--have? We may discover that objects in the lives of Jews have complex Jewish identities: solid, ambivalent, erratic, or angst filled like the Jewish identities of people. We may also discover that just as memory recovers lost, stolen, and rejected worlds and forgotten ways of being Jewish, objects-those present, those retrieved, and even those dimly recalled--may do as well.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.