Mind, body, soul
First in a series on rituals in Jewish life
The Jewish Family Identity Forum
By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
When I visit my father’s house, I have oatmeal for breakfast, just as he has done for years. On vacation in Florida, the first thing my husband and I do after unpacking the suitcases is head off to the grocery store to stock the refrigerator with healthy foods. At the end of every day, I straighten up the house so I can start fresh in the morning.
Once, I might have called these rituals, but are they really? Or are they just routines?
Every Friday afternoon I put gas in the car so I can avoid doing so during the Shabbat trip to synagogue. I call my Dad just about every day not only because I enjoy our chats but also because — even when I’m exhausted or have no time — he deserves to be honored in such a manner.
And at year’s end, I donate to a variety of charities, making sure Jewish and Israeli causes are amply represented. After all, it’s a mitzvah. Are these routines or rituals? What is the difference and why is it important?
A routine is a customary or regular behavior, often unimaginative, that we do by habit or rote: like putting the house in order at day’s end or stopping for coffee every morning on the way to work. This regular pattern of activity may be extended to a group, like circle time activities in a preschool classroom, providing comfort, security, and order. Its source and its purpose are designed by the individual for nothing more than practicality or satisfaction.
On the other hand, a ritual — and in particular, a religious ritual — is a set of actions performed for both practical and its symbolic value. It can be religious in nature such as a wedding ceremony or a Passover Seder. Or it can be secular, such as traditional forms of greeting in the Far East or the minute of silence throughout Israel on Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day). But whether religious or secular, a ritual has both established forms and underlying significance for a community.
“Rituals are a way of defining what is meaningful and important,” Susanne Taylor writes in The Importance of Rituals.
Taylor continues: “…the value of a ritual comes from ‘its ability to connect you to a larger context that clarifies your relationship to yourself, others, and your place in the universe.’”
The challenge for Judaism is that for many, rituals have become routines.
Putting up the traditional mezuzah that’s forever after ignored. Racing through a few pages of the Haggadah just to announce, “We’ve done the Seder. Now let’s eat.” Dropping a home-centered brit in favor of a hospital-based circumcision.
Somehow, we have failed to communicate the “magic” of our rituals; only the routines are left.
Yet, secular rituals still have the power to move us. You can always spot a tear or two at flag ceremonies. Fraternity and sorority initiation rites are incredibly powerful. How about all the giddiness surrounding the recent royal wedding? Coronations, oaths of allegiance, graduation ceremonies, jury trials and the like all have the power to move us. What is their secret?
Rituals are designed to speak to the mind, body, and soul.
Every ritual has an intellectual depth that is provocative and inspirational. Yet for many it seems totally inaccessible because Jewish learning stopped with Hebrew school, confirmation, or the college campus Hillel; likely not at an adult level of learning and generally not in context. For the modern, highly-educated, but Jewishly illiterate adult, ritual appears to be an intellectual void. Yet, every day the interested seeker can simply go online and discover myriad intellectually-stimulating discussions, courses, and facts related to any Jewish ritual.
They encapsulate history, philosophy, dialectics, morality, psychology, sociology…and that’s just for starters.
Jewish rituals are designed to speak to the mind. But it’s not enough. Intellectual stimulation is only one part of our spiritual needs.
“The medium is the message,” Wendy Mogel writes in The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.
“Emotions are evoked and memories etched not with brilliantly argued points of theology but through the senses. This is why religious rituals are designed explicitly to appeal to our senses…”
The scent of an etrog or baking challah. The sight of multi-hued Chanukah candles reflected in the window. The sounds of glass breaking and shouts of “mazel tov” at a wedding. The haunting tune of El Maley Rachamim (the Hebrew prayer for the dead) at a funeral. Without the sensory stimulation of rituals, our body doesn’t connect. But that’s not enough, either.
We have to connect on an emotional level as well. One of my students noted recently that Jewish camps have incredible emotional impact because they have discovered the power of building community through music. Music brings everyone together, she noted, because it creates a shared experience and bond over familiar words and melodies. Religious rituals are similarly designed to be community experiences of sharing and bonding — and a multitude of studies demonstrate the importance of community to all aspects of emotional and physical well-being.
Religious rituals aren’t just for “the religious.” They aren’t anti-intellectual. And they certainly aren’t out of reach. But religious rituals don’t work if they are just routines, because then they don’t speak to all aspects of our being: heart, mind, and spirit. Rituals done well are not only engaging and uplifting, but they can also clarify our own personal identity, relationships with others, and purpose in the universe. Isn’t this what we’re all seeking?
Family Discussion: What are some of your family’s Jewish rituals? How do they speak to mind, body, and soul? Are there rituals that have just become routines or dropped altogether? Why? What do we need to do to get them to speak to us?
Literature to share
Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King by Richard Michelson: This delightfully illustrated book recounts the story of one of baseball’s earliest and least-known heroes at a time when America’s favorite sport was still called “Base.” Along the way, you’ll discover some fascinating facts about the history of baseball. Whether you’re a fan of the sport or not, you’ll find this book engaging.
The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn by Lucette Lagnado: A mirror image to Lagnado’s memoir about her father, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, Arrogant Years is a brilliant, haunting memoir highlighting her mother’s story. From descriptions of dining with kings in Egypt to landing on the shores of America as refugees, it captures the influences of culture, the challenges of adapting to a new home, and the changing roles of women — in descriptive, captivating prose.