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A Jewish Perspective on Ritual

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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For many Jews, if asked about their strongest Jewish childhood memory, it would be the Passover seder – a meal with ritualised retelling of the story of the exodus. For some, this will be their only interaction with their Judaism all year round, but they wouldn't miss it, even if they don't keep the seven days of leaven-free Passover after it.


Ritual and celebration is a central part of Jewish life, often described as a guide for living rather than a system of belief. Ritual can form the core of many of our daily actions, from different blessings over foods we eat, to morning, afternoon and evening prayers, blessings on waking up, and on going to the loo, blessings on smelling spices, and on seeing a rainbow. Every time I eat, I am reminded that I am Jewish, in the choices I make about the foods that I eat, and the thanks that I offer for having done so. Weeks are structured by the Sabbath (known as Shabbat), which regularly gives me an opportunity to withdraw from the hustle and bustle of work and life, from phones and email stresses, from news and housework. This weekly cycle reminds me for six days that the world is not perfect and that I am a person with free will who must work to perfect creation, and bring change, even if I cannot complete the mammoth task, while Shabbat reminds me that I am not in charge, and that the world will be fine without me. People often say to me (particularly because I'm a Progressive Jew), 'Isn't it really a drag having to keep all the rules of Shabbat?' The secret is, I wouldn't do it if it was, and the few times it can feel like I'd rather be watching Big Brother evictions or going shopping, I remember that, for the vast majority of the time, it's incredibly liberating – I don't see the traditional rules as restrictions, but opportunities and gifts.


The year is also marked by festivals and fasts. Jewish life was once summarised as: 'They killed us, let's fast. They tried to kill us and failed, let's eat.' It's not quite that simple, but certainly our fasts (apart from the main one on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur) are generally connected to times when we were in danger or when disaster did hit the community (these all come from thousands of years ago). Every festival, whether it comes from the Hebrew Bible (such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Purim) or later (such as Hanukah), has special foods associated with it, and special rituals to be performed. Some of the rituals stem back to Biblical times, others have been introduced through Jewish history, and Jews in different lands will sometimes have different customs.


Rituals and celebrations strengthen


All of this makes community very important (indeed sociologically much of it might have come about in order to protect and create community) but even more important is the family. After the Temple was destroyed, if a Jew had to, they could always cope without a community as rituals and celebrations so often occur in the home. Nonetheless life is much easier when there are kosher shops and synagogues readily available for when feasting and fasting come around, and praying with a community is preferred, so Jews have often tried to live near each other.


Important life-cycle events will also be marked within the community, with birth, becoming a teenager, marriage (and divorce) and death being marked with special ritual and community acknowledgement. While not all Jews will choose to mark occasions in such a way, many are now trying to use traditional models, but with a twist of personal input to make it their own. If you look online you can find many new ceremonies and rituals that Jews are creating for moments that ritual already exists for and moments it doesn't (particularly in a woman's life-cycle, such as miscarriage, or the onset of periods).[1]


Rituals give identity


Ritual is an important part of my Judaism because it forms a crucial part of my identity and provides reminders of the more important things in life. It has also formed the basis of many happy family gatherings and I hope it will give to my children a sense of their roots and the importance of valuing the gifts of this world and themselves. Ritual without meaning is empty, but throwing out tradition without thinking about what meaning it could hold for me has often, ultimately, led me back to ritual, and I have found that increasingly I am drawn to rituals and a physical involvement in and marking of my faith and my community. This in turn has provided support when I was in mourning and celebrations when I got married.


Celebrate the good as well as the bad


Celebrations are also crucial, as it can be easy to only remember the bad things that have happened to the Jewish people, but much more important to its future is, I believe, its celebrations. Many people feel they have to maintain Judaism's rituals and celebrations because so many people were murdered due to their Judaism in the Second World War. For me, this is a pretty weak reason to be Jewish, especially when there are so many positive reasons! So it is my hope that the synagogue won't only be packed on Yom Kippur and Yom HaShoah (The Day of Atonement and Holocaust Memorial Day – the most solemn days of the year), but also on Simchat Torah when the synagogue is filled with dancing and music.




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