In “The Womb,” we’re starting to plan our interfaith women’s chapel service at Union, which is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 18th at 12:30pm (stay tuned!). Lindsey asked us this framing question: How would we like to transform people in this service? And it got us all thinking about what it means to create ritual woven together from our separate stories, ritual that brings together our particular languages, theologies, and practices, but has the power to transform people emotionally. How can we create ritual that is both embodied and honest to our core beliefs? Some ideas we brainstormed included sharing blessings over bread, prostrating ourselves toward the east, singing niggunim (wordless melodies) that are connected to the shared idea of angels in our traditions, and weaving cloth representing our traditions together. I also want for us to share stories, vignettes that speak to our unique experiences of universal emotions and struggles. It’s a tall order for a half-hour block of time.
I’m also thinking about ritual in its particular Jewish context, because I’m teaching a class this semester at my synagogue internship called “Why Do We Do What We Do?” We’re exploring Jewish practice and ritual from a number of different contexts and lenses, including historical, halakhic (Jewish law), spiritual practice, theological, and others, with the hope of deepening and informing our practice of those rituals. In this blog post, I want to explain about how I approach ritual within a Jewish context so that we can think together about our practice of ritual, what it’s supposed to accomplish, and how it affects our religious/spiritual/cultural identities.
In my first class this past Thursday night, I brought a particular framework to the analysis of ritual that my teacher, Rabbi Ranon Teller, taught me. In Jewish law, regarding the blessings we say over particular foods, there’s an idea that one must identify which food is the ikar, the primary or essential food, and which food is the tafel, the subsidiary component. For example, if I’m eating french friends with ketchup, the french fries would be considered the ikar, and I need to make a blessing over them. The ketchup is the tafel, because I’m only eating it as a condiment for the fries, and wouldn’t be eating it just by itself, and therefore I don’t make a separate blessing over the ketchup. Why is this important? Because saying blessings over food isn’t about a rote action, or some kind of mathematical equation that is uniform for every person and every meal. It’s about intention: thinking about our desire for food as we sit down to eat and why it is that we’re eating. Directing that kind of mindfulness inward will, hopefully, help us eat more slowly and with more gratitude to the Source of our food.
Later on, this idea of ikar and tafel is expanded to mean essence and vehicle. The ikar, the essence, is the most important thing, the big idea that we’re supposed to understand, the core concept. The tafel is the vehicle or agent by which that ikar is transmitted. It is the physical, tangible container that is able to hold the big, amorphous concept. Clifford Geertz said it this way in his definition of a symbol:
Any object, act, event, quality, or relation which serves as a vehicle for a conception – the conception is the symbol’s “meaning”…
[Symbols are] tangible formulations of notions, abstractions from experience fixed in perceptible forms, concrete embodiments of ideas, attitudes, judgments, longings, or beliefs.
Through symbols, we make our core ideas real and accessible. We connect to these concepts through tangible actions and activities.
Judaism as a religion and as a civilization is interested in our spiritual formation as ethical and moral, intellectually curious people who work for equality and justice in the world.* Those are broad, universal concepts that could be shared by any religious or cultural grouping. However, each tradition has its own particular way of approaching and transmitting those core, essential concepts. Judaism has a particular language and set of symbols (what I’m calling the tafel) that is designed to teach the ikar.
These rituals and symbols also have value beyond the big ideas that they transmit – they also perpetuate our particular culture and connect communities to each other. They help us to hold steady in a chaotic, confusing world and give us anchors to hold onto. They help us to reach beyond ourselves, backwards and forward in time and space. And my hope is that ritual can also be profoundly transformative. Geertz also wrote:
In a ritual, the world as lived and the world as imagined, fused under the agency of a single set of symbolic forms, turns out to be the same world.
We talk about “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be.” In Jewish language, that’s often expressed as olam hazeh and olam habah – this world and the world to come. Often in our perception, those two worlds exist in completely separate dimensions from each other. But ritual fuses our aspirations for the world to come into the reality of the here and now. Take lighting Shabbat candles, for example, which I taught about in my first class. In a single, brief moment of bringing light into a dark room, we also have the power to bring about a profound transition into sacred time. We slow down and see the sun setting through our windows, a transition in time that happens every single day, but on this day, Shabbat, we honor it as sacred, separate, holy. Lighting candles is about setting a day apart that is honored, full of joy, where we stop trying to change, work, create, and just experience the world’s beauty for what it is. All of Shabbat is like that, but the ritual of lighting candles to bring in Shabbat is the action that joins this world to the eternity of the world to come.
I wrote this post to try to clarify my own thinking about ritual, so if you have questions and/or thoughts, or if anything wasn’t so clear, I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.
*These are three of the concepts that were identified in the recent Pew Forum survey as the most important attributes that Jews say are essential to being Jewish. The top attribute was “remembering the Holocaust,” followed by “leading an ethical and moral life,” “working for justice/equality,” and “being intellectually curious.” More information here: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/chapter-3-jewish-identity/