When She Arrives

How can creativity and a sense of commandedness be combined when confronting new ritual needs?

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This article originally appeared in Orthodox Jewish Women and Ritual: Birth, a publication of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Reprinted with permission.

Performance of mitzvot, the obligations imposed by tradition, demands that we surrender some measure of autonomy, and this is especially true of the performance of rituals. We perform a ritual because we have received a particular tradition, because someone else says we should, because it has always been done this way.

This is a simplification, to be sure, because we often (and perhaps always) put our own stamp on the tradition, investing it with particular kinds of significance in the light of our own experience and our own historical moment. Nevertheless, in general, we experience ritual ready-made. Ritual is already present, as it were, waiting patiently for us to arrive.

Obligation vs. Spontaneity

R. Hanina taught: "the one who acts in the fulfillment of an obligation is greater than the one who acts spontaneously" (Kiddushin 31a). At first glance, this is counter-intuitive. Shouldn't we esteem the person acting spontaneously, free of any obligation, more than the person who only acts because she feels compelled to do so?  Isn't the former person demonstrating free will, an "open heart," while the latter merely complies with some kind of coercion?

No. R. Haninah's spiritual insight recognizes that actions that one does not feel obligated to perform may be spontaneous, but they are also, for that very reason, arbitrary, lacking in commitment and purpose. If I genuinely feel no obligation to give tzedakah or to return a lost object--if I feel no compulsion whatsoever--then I might as well flip a coin. The very heteronomy of an obligation contributes to its meaning; the feeling that we are commanded or in some sense compelled to carry it out provides it with a purpose. And nowhere is this more apparent than in lifecycle rituals, those traditions that wait for us to arrive so that we may mark and sanctify particular moments of transition.

But what if we arrive at such a moment, like the birth of a baby girl, and do not find any ritual waiting for us? In light of the centrality of mitzvah, of that which is commanded, some may argue that the very absence is conclusive, because the idea of creating a ritual is a self-contradiction. How can anyone ever consciously invent a ritual and somehow endow it with meaning, meaning which can only come from the tradition? 

But this response is historically disingenuous. More importantly, it is philosophically imperceptive, because the very desire to seek out a ritual, the very impulse to sanctify the moment, is itself derived from the tradition. That desire, that impulse, is an obligation that the tradition imposes upon us--less explicit, certainly, and less well defined than clearly demarcated traditional rituals, but no less obligatory, and hence no less a potential vehicle of meaning.

Finding Resources to Innovate

Thus, when there is no ritual waiting for us to arrive, we find the resources within the tradition to satisfy the obligation as best we can. But each of us may see that obligation differently, and each may have distinct criteria for its fulfillment. Ritual models may proliferate, and that proliferation threatens to undermine the satisfaction of the obligation. As we survey the efforts of others, the absence of an established practice threatens to deny us the heteronomy that contributes meaning to ceremony. Nothing is waiting for us when she arrives.

And so, when our first child arrived, a daughter, Emily and I assembled a ritual to fulfill our obligation. Within broad halakhic parameters, we asked ourselves what seemed right, knowing well that the very question is an uncomfortable one to ask about religious practice. We crafted our simchat ha-bat out of a variety of liturgical elements, borrowed from Tehillim [Psalms] and various Sephardic traditions, picking and choosing and creating.

But we felt the need for a meaningful structure for these elements, a framework that would make sense of the whole. So we turned to the traditional liturgical configuration [of three kinds of blessings]: shevah, praise; followed by bakasha, petition; concluding with hoda'ah, thanksgiving. These three themes captured our feelings: wonder and amazement, powerlessness but hope, joy with gratitude.

But these themes were about our experience, the experience of new parents amazed and overwhelmed and feeling an obligation to express that experience publicly. They were not about this newborn. We wanted, as well, to acknowledge our daughter through ritual, to mark her acceptance into the covenantal community. We surveyed the efforts of others--but we found no comfortable way to do so.

A Life of Its Own

And yet, when the day arrived, we found that the newly created ceremony seemed to take on a life of its own. As we performed the script that we ourselves had crafted, the ceremony, which we had worried was so artificial, became genuine. The reliance upon traditional liturgical structures, which had seemed so wooden, became meaningful. And significantly, the tefillah be-tzibbur [the act of communal prayer] itself, the gathering together of friends to hear and join our words of prayer, became the ritual element we feared was missing.

W. B. Yeats' poem "A Prayer for My Daughter" (1919) opens with the feeling of powerlessness that all parents know too intimately, as the poet watches his daughter sleep on a stormy night: "I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour/ And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower…"  But the poet overcomes that powerlessness in the very act of composing his poem, articulating his dreams for his daughter: "Imagining in excited reverie/ That the future years had come…" 

His prayer describes all that he hopes she will become; he speaks of kindness and courtesy, of rootedness and radical innocence. He then concludes the poem by wishing her a life filled with the meaning of ritual: "And may her bridegroom bring her to a house/ Where all's accustomed, ceremonious…"  Thus, the poem exemplifies one of the virtues for which the poet prays: a life of ritual, of custom and ceremony, in which our carefully crafted actions--our poems, our artistry, our desperate and never-quite-sufficient attempts to overcome the feelings of powerlessness in order to fulfill our obligations--take on transcendent meaning that is derived from, but not exhausted by, our intentions. "How but in custom and in ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born?"

It would have been easier for Emily and me to arrive at the moment and find the ritual waiting, without having to make choices about what was right for us and for our community. Something is undoubtedly missing from ritual that is constructed consciously, rather than simply received and accepted.

And yet, in the process of weighing our obligations and considering how to draw upon the tradition to satisfy them, how to overcome the feeling of powerlessness through the creation of custom and ceremony, something may also be gained as well: an intimate connection, a genuine encounter, a depth of commitment. B'ruchah ha-ba'ah; blessed is she who has arrived.

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Jon A. Levisohn

Jon A. Levisohn is Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis University.