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Ritual du Jour

Vanessa Ochs studies “bark mitzvahs” and other modern inventions

Amy Rosenberg
September 11, 2007

In her new book, Inventing Jewish Ritual, Vanessa L. Ochs, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, looks at the recent proliferation of so-called Jewish rituals, ranging from the innovative (infertility rites) to the ridiculous

(“bark mitzvahs”). She also guides readers in creating their own traditions, and explores how traditional communities can move beyond skepticism to turn invented rituals into sanctioned, even beloved, tradition.

What, broadly, is the purpose of religious ritual?

Religious rituals give us ways to shape and focus our experiences, ways that take us out of ourselves and connect us to other people in our tribe, in our community, in our group—both people who are living and historically. And they also link us to God—or to a power, however we’re defining that—which is larger and greater than ourselves. They make our lives not arbitrary. We need new rituals when the old ones don’t work anymore to shape parts of our lives.

Why do the old ones sometimes stop working?

In some cases, our contemporary realities are such that no ritual was ever developed which can mark what’s happening to us. For instance, we need rituals now to mark retirement or menopause, because we expect to live long after those events, and we want rituals to shape and comment upon those things.

But doesn’t religious tradition exist in part to create a sense of something ancient and unchanging, something an individual can turn to during major life events—a stable base when other things are shifting?

I think that often religious people demonstrate their love and commitment to their inherited faith by changing practices. They do it so that their faith can remain vibrant under new, current, or challenging situations…. We usually think of being a stickler for past practices as a sure sign of piety, but we can surely see a different form of piety, that practiced by people who are willing to put up with the discomfort of novelty and experimentation in order to preserve Judaism as a living tradition.

Can new rituals be considered as valid or as important as preexisting ones? For example, how can a “car mitzvah” have as much religious weight as a bar mitzvah? Can an orange on the seder plate be as important, given larger contexts, as, say, the charoset? What about a so-called bark mitzvah, the new practice of bar mitzvahing your dog?

It depends how you define “valid and important.” A bar mitzvah used to be no big deal—a boy went to shul with his dad in the morning, had an aliyah, downed a glass of schnapps, and went off to school. Now it costs thousands of dollars and a year of preparation, it keeps a kid in religious school, and allows families to demonstrate their commitment to Judaism. So in a sense there is a “new” bar mitzvah that has become a very big ritual. As for the car mitzvah—that is, a ritual in which a synagogue gives its new teenage drivers a token, like a tree of life keychain, to remind them to drive carefully—it has a small chance of catching on, I think, only because 16-year-old kids in liberal Judaism don’t tend to go to shul much…. The orange on the seder plate will fade away because there isn’t much to do with it aside from notice it, and, God willing, the inequities in Jewish life that it points out will hopefully be addressed in the coming years.

The bark mitzvah—that’s just silly. What isn’t silly, and what will perhaps expand, is the practice of Jews finding ways to mark the death of their beloved pets.

How, in general, does one go about creating new rituals?

When we are inventing new rituals, we turn to our available cultural practices—what I call the “Jewish ritual toolbox.” You aren’t going to just think out of nowhere, “Okay, what should I do?” You want to make sure that other Jews feel that your practice is within the language of Judaism—not just the verbal language, the prayers, songs, texts and so forth, but also the language of ritual gestures, or ritual objects, such as lighting candles or dipping something in water. Even if there weren’t a ritual to name my baby daughter in my rabbi’s manual, for example, it is incredibly comforting to know that there are psalms and proverbs and sacred texts that I could turn to to create one, that with a little tweaking or some adjustment, I can make use of what has been there all along.

Some of the rituals you describe in your book seem, at least from a more conservative point of view, to stretch the limits of religious practice—or to defy traditional rules outright. For example, you mention the “new ritual” of getting a Star of David tattoo, but isn’t there a law against burying a tattooed body in a Jewish cemetery? Can we really consider such inventions—the ones that are a stretch or an instance of defiance—rituals?

I don’t know that there are really limits on what can and cannot be a ritual. For instance, when someone came up with the idea of the afikomen, I can picture most people going, “Are you kidding? Hide a matzoh?” It’s easy to imagine that it seemed silly at first, but, for whatever reason—whether it had something to do with God’s hiddenness, or with, say, just keeping children interested—we accepted it. And now the seder cannot officially end without it.

Funny about the tattooing rule: People can know next to nothing about Judaism (or even a lot) but they’ll say this they know for sure: that if you have a tattoo, you won’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. If you speak to members of chevra kadishas [“burial societies”] and Jewish funeral parlor directors, I bet you will never meet anyone who has ever stood in the way of a burial for someone with a tattoo. Studies of the biblical prohibition on tattooing, by the by, reveal that it is not about making a design on oneself, but about gashing oneself, as some non-Jewish peoples did, in antiquity, as a sign of mourning.

While some new practices—Torah yoga, say—might represent a spiritual undertaking, can they always be included in the category of religious ritual? Isn’t it possible to define ritual a little too broadly?

I agree: There are big lifecycle rituals—bris, marriage, death—and big holidays—Passover, Rosh Hashana. And there are less grandiose spiritual practices—having a seder on Tu B’shvat, the new year for trees, an upsherin, a haircutting ceremony for a three-year-old boy about to wear tallit katan for first time, putting tzedaka money in a blue-and-white box before Shabbat. A women’s seder or a torah yoga practice would fall into that category, I think.

In your book, you talk about some of the ways in which even Orthodox Jews are inventing rituals. But is it more acceptable to invent rituals in the Reform movement? How much latitude do Orthodox Jews really have to create within the boundaries of their own beliefs and their communities’ expectations?

What makes things difficult for Orthodox Jews wishing to institute new practices is a strong sense of communal norms. Years ago, when Orthodox feminists wanted to have monthly women’s prayer groups—even when they found rabbis who said this would be acceptable according to halakha, if done in particular ways, which the women were happy to follow—they were told [by community leaders] that having this monthly three-hour service would destroy family unity…. Changes terrify us, because our Jewish practices are so very dear and hold us together, so we think that a bit of change will threaten the whole structure. But change happens: Women’s prayer groups have become a new norm in many Orthodox communities.

Is it okay for people to invent rituals themselves even if they’re not observing many of the normative ones, like keeping kosher or observing Shabbat?

Anyone can invent a new Jewish ritual practice and perform it…. As for “normative Judaism”: Many of the leading rabbis in the Reform movement do not keep kosher; this does not make them, in the eyes of those who have ordained them and those who follow them, illegitimate transmitters of Judaism. The rituals that have the best chance of catching on are made by people with a love of Judaic tradition and some textual knowledge.