Studying New Ritual

Looking through the lens of material culture.

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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.

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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.