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.

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Jon A. Levisohn

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