What Do Lifecycle Celebrations Do?

Jewish lifecycle ceremonies celebrate change, and sanctify the ordinary.

Rituals Respond to Change

The ceremonies and rituals with which Jews respond to the major moments of a person’s life–birth, marriage, maturity, death–do not in them­selves bring about a change. They celebrate or respond to the change that has taken place and guide us to see the deeper meaning, the divine presence hidden in the event. The ceremonies of welcoming a newborn Jewish baby do not make the baby Jewish; the child of a Jewish mother is Jewish from birth. Even a wedding ceremony does not join two people in marriage so much as it recognizes and celebrates the significance of their having linked their lives to each other.

— Rabbi Harold Kushner is the author of numerous books, including When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Reprinted with permission from To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking (Little, Brown), pp. 215.

Judaism Sanctifies the Ordinary

Perhaps the single most prominent and consistent theme of [my] book [To Life! is] Judaism’s focus on sanctifying the ordinary, spotlighting the specialness hidden in the most commonplace events.  Statistically, birth and death are everyday occurrences. Millions of people are born every day, and millions of other people die. Statistically, there is nothing unusual about people getting married. But when it is our parent who has died, our child born, our daughter married, we know that something special, something out-of-the-ordinary is happening.

We ask our reli­gious tradition to teach us how to transcend the statistics, how to redeem the moment from the realm of the ordinary. We ask it to teach us that the story of two people committing themselves to love each other is a masterpiece that God has wrought, and not just a matter of maintaining the species. We ask it to remind us that the death of a good person signifi­cantly diminishes God’s world, and that the birth of a Jewish child, and that child’s growing up to affirm his or her Jewish heritage, strengthens God’s presence in the world. We ask Judaism to help us celebrate the fact that a Bar Mitzvah is more than a birthday party, a wedding is more than a legal agreement. We ask Judaism to help us respond to death as more than a biological event. We want it to give us the words to say, to tell us what to do, and to know that we are doing what generations of Jews before us have done at just such moments in their own lives. And Judaism responds by giving us what we need.

Reprinted from To Life!, pp. 240-241.

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