Rituals for Contemporary Life

My friend Ari Johnson is fond of saying that his favorite thing about Judaism is the way it transforms the mundane into holy. Judaisms, at their best, have a brilliant focus on the things we do as we go through the moments of our lives and making them meaningful through their acknowledgment.

Over time new rituals have evolved as the moments in our lives in need have marking have changed. A Bar Mitzvah ritual is first recorded in Verona, Italy close to 1,000 years ago. The first Bat Mitzvah ceremony took place in 1922 as first-wave feminism gained strength and began to broaden beyond fighting de jure discrimination. [self-indulgent side note: i was lucky to have known Judith Kaplan Eisenstein z”l.]

This past weekend, following the wedding of the Ruby-K and General Anna, I had a discussion with the super-secret-identity-having Rooftopper Rav. We chatted about major moments today that don’t have good Jewish rituals (that we know of) to accompany them.
Here are a few examples:

  • moving in with a partner to whom you are not married. [to some extent the marriage process acts as a ritual in the case where you move in together post-huppah.]
  • separating from a partner to whom you were never married.
  • substantially changing diet (becoming/ceasing to be, kosher-keeping, veg, vegan, etc)
  • Accepting a new job.
  • Graduating from university, trade school, etc.

In most cases we lack a good ritual because the lifestage is rather new (as with getting a driver’s license), has an accompanying taboo which is decreasing (moving in with a partner w/o getting hitched), or has increased in frequency (diet changes, job changes, graduation, etc). These are all times when we would be well served to have a good marker.
Either there aren’t too many folks coming up with innovative solutions, they aren’t getting the word out, or i am out of the loop. These are all strong possibilities.
That said, there are some folks doing good work. I ran across Ritualwell.org which has some interesting stuff, including this page on getting a drivers license, which i initially put on my list of occasions without a ritual. Kudos to them.
What occasions should we have rituals for?
Who is doing good work out there to create rituals?

11 thoughts on “Rituals for Contemporary Life

  1. I didn’t associate any rituals with going veggie, but it was a decision I made during the month of Elul, so it ended up religiously framed that way. But that doesn’t help people who make the jump during the other 11/12 months. . . something natural-body-of-water-mikva related might have worked well for me on a religious level, but the logistics would have been prohibitive.

  2. What about dropping off a kid at college? (And bonus points for one’s oldest child). Aliyot serve for a certain all-purpose marking ritual, but as I grow older I long for the real emotional high that goes with moaning cattle and sprinkled blood.

  3. An example of the disconnect between liberal Jewry and their clergy. The last thing most liberal Jews are looking for is more, new, expanisve ritual. As if.

  4. Interesting discussion ZT, thanks for raising it. I’ve been struggling with a parallel issue.
    I’m currently interested in how the Jewish community can reclaim established ritual to guide our work in the world. More specifically, I understand that benching gomel (a prayer for overcoming difficult obstacles, etc) has been used to welcome ex-prisoners back into their communities.
    I hope that we can reclaim this ritual beyond Jewish communities welcoming back Jewish ex-prisoners, as Jews make up such a small portion of our nation’s prison population. Instead, let’s reclaim this ritual to engender change in the wider community. Imagine benching gomel as a core inspiration for Jewish business owners to (appropriately, of course) higher ex-offenders.
    Anyway, that’s my current interest. Not how do we invent more ritual, but how do we best utilize/reclaim that which we already have?

  5. not the last time i checked BZ. i suppose sometimes i get asked halachic questions on the street if i am wearing a dark suit sans tie and a kippah.

  6. Interesting, and relevant, but how often could one use these?
    One ritual we don’t have is the loss of a pregnancy. It is someting that still happens and there’s no official mourning or healing ritual.
    But a blessing for a new cell phone? A ritual when one gets nookie? A Hangover? A Hangnail? Where do we draw the line, if at all?
    Perhaps we can start with something simpler and mundane. Like food. You eat it every day. Oh wait we’ve got a ritual for that… But if there were a way to get people to think as much about saying a bracha over their food as some do about how organic/vegetarian/gluten-free it is, the dial would move a little on people living Jewish daily.
    Most Jews know Hagafen but maybe use it monthly or quarterly because they’re not Shomer Shabbes. Everyone knows Shehechiyanu, but people tend not to have momentus occasions that often.
    So what else is done daily, has meaning but is not covered in ritual? Sleep is covered, waking is covered. How about taking a shower? Wrapping a Yoga class or a Workout?

  7. Forgive me for being rude, but this excersize demonstrates how generationally myopic we’ve become. Several articles and posts about innovating ritual based on seemingly mundane experiences and yet not one mentions one that responds to an expereince outside the purview of their own life.
    Has anyone seen the large quantity of people who are getting older and thus, more disengaged or disempowered from our community and society? Yes, this strikes a personal chord with three above 85 grandparents who within the next two months will all be moved into a “residential living facility” or “old-age home.” One who has strongly developed frontal-lobe dimmensia a.k.a alzhemers, another with macular degeneration and depression (based in old age, his wifes’ senility and his “uselessness”), and anothers’ lonliness.
    I WILL NOT let myself or my community or society be a further cause of these illnesses, which, I believe, are NOT entirely based in age.
    Judaism touts age as being one of the ultimate markers of honor and respect- one that can really qualify you as being a leader and authority- and, I would say, even matters more than any amount of hours spent in a beit midrash.
    Let’s not forget about the generation that actually taught us about the importance of ritual and to quote the original post, but to make these moments and people holy.

  8. Noam, I am not really sure what the nature of your anger is. I absolutely think we should be creating and sharing ritual approaches to those very important life-stage transformations. I certainly would place them soundly in the category of this “exercise”.
    Personally I have buried two grandparents in the last year and spent many years with my grandmother as she aged into someone else due to the ravages of dimmensia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. it was tough and the death had ritual but not the process of realizing someone who was my grandmother no longer knew who i was. in many ways, that moment was more devastating.
    Adam, your question about where we draw the line is important. My personal sense is that the process of creating and embracing ritual also impacts behavior. that is part of the point. if we think about things we do all the time and what makes them holy and meaningful, and draw a blank, that’s probably a pretty good sign we should reconsider. Perhaps thinking about nookie in terms of l’Shem Yichud Kudshah (in the name of [the] holy unity) goes in that direction. if it doesn’t fit that model, perhaps that brings up good questions too. Perhaps a different bracha about the body that hashem gave you and its capacity for love/pleasure/etc. the point is, if you feel good about doing whatever it is, and it’s an important part of your life, it is likely that more intention is a good thing.
    Re some of the specific moments you mentioned: i am glad you did. If you check out ritual well you will see some resources for marriages ended and pregnancies which ended or were ended.

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