Ritualizing our values

By Candace R. Kwiatek, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

Jewish Family Identity Forum

Candace R. Kwiatek

A mound of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters spilled out onto the kitchen table from boxes, pockets, and purses. Every year back as far as I can remember, my family took some time in late December to count all the spare change collected since the previous January. We rolled it into cardboard tubes for depositing in the bank and then wrote a check for an equal amount to donate to a charity.

Another sacrosanct end-of-year ritual was writing thank-you notes for all the gifts from relatives and friends. In fact, the rule was that you couldn’t use any presents until you had written all the notes. Both are rituals I practice even today.

“One can find rituals, both sacred and secular, throughout ‘modern’ society…,” writes Kevin Carrico (Ritual, In recent weeks, we’ve seen examples of both: flags flying at half mast in the aftermath of tragedy, lighting our menorahs to recall the story of the Maccabees and the miracle of the long-lasting oil.

It’s likely that every Jew in America could relate to the secular ritual of the flag at half-mast. However, not every Jew celebrated the religious rituals of Chanukah. As the division between secular and religious grows, it has become more and more common to simply drop the religious in the midst of an increasingly secular society.

In Judaism, however, it’s a distinction without a difference: everyday life activities are imbued with both the secular and the holy, and religious practice melds both the holy and the everyday. Through Jewish eyes, the secular flag ritual embodies the religious view of the sanctity of life and the religious candlelighting ritual commemorates a secular fight for religious freedom.

Similarly, my family’s coin and thank-you note rituals embody secular and religious elements (Jewish values of tzedakah and gratitude). Whether a ritual is secular, sacred or both is often a matter of perspective.

Initially, when we think of religious ritual, we’re likely to imagine prescribed behaviors with symbolic meaning, but seemingly lacking significant practical or “worldly” application. Stylized actions. Religious beliefs and obligations.

Spirituality. They have their origins in the Torah or rabbinic commentaries, practices of far-flung communities, or cultural changes in the modern era. Light the Chanukah menorah from the left or the right? Rice and beans on Passover or not? A double-ring wedding ceremony?

But does it make sense that Judaism, a here-and-now repair-the-world tradition, would build its entire ritual system around esoterica? Is it possible that we’re missing something when we relegate Jewish ritual to an otherworldly, devotional sphere?

Two unrelated sociological studies — Religion, Group Threat, and Protected Values by Sheikh, Ginges, Coman and Atran; and Symbolism in Religion and Rituals, at — come to the similar conclusion that ritual performs two significant functions. One, participation in ritual builds protected or sacred values, which have important influences on everyday decision making. Two, ritual is a symbolic link between a community’s ideas and values and an individual’s interactions and activities in the world.

In other words, traditional rituals embody Jewish values, and active ritual engagement builds those values into the participants, which in turn influences their decisions and behaviors.

Since Jewish values have been judged worthy for millennia, it would seem that we all have good reason to engage in traditional rituals.

But not every Jew participates in established Jewish rituals. Is there another way of looking at ritual that could enhance Jewish identity?

“What, in fact, is ritual?” Carrico queries. “Where does ritual originate? What forms does ritual take…?” There is no single answer.

So instead of starting with ritual to build values and thereby influence behaviors, as in the traditional approach, what would happen if we infused current behaviors with Jewish values, then ritualized them in a way that built and reinforced Jewish identity?

This is not the easier path. After all, traditional rituals that have withstood the test of millennia already exist. Instead, this approach begins with some exposure to a Jewish value — through chance, observation or study — followed by a challenge to apply it to everyday life in some habit-forming manner. Here are some examples.

Liberty. When you eat out, look your server in the eyes and call him by name. Doing so acknowledges that she is not your slave but a fellow human being.

Tzedakah. When you buy groceries, make a habit to buy an extra item or two to donate to the needy. As you have been blessed, bless others.

Care for the earth. When you make copies for work or other activities, take time to adjust the print size or encourage sharing copies so you don’t need to waste paper. Arrange your errands so you use the least gas. After all, we’ve been assigned to be the earth’s guardians.

Honesty. Check to make sure you’ve cited your source when using another’s words or ideas. Let the cashier know when she’s given you too much change. Don’t mislead through omission.

Values informing behaviors. Behaviors becoming habits. Is there value to adding one more step, elevating behaviors through rituals? Both ancient rabbis and modern sociologists think so; rituals are a central component of identity-building. Through appropriate words, symbols, and actions — traditional or self-designed —rituals identify a community’s values and invite participants to adopt them as part of their own identity, completing the circle of ritual: values, behavior, identity.

Rituals in Judaism are sacred and secular. They highlight Jewish values that are both relevant to our everyday lives and essential to our individual and communal Jewish identities. Perhaps you enjoy the traditional rituals or maybe you’re more engaged when exploring and applying Jewish values and creating personalized rituals. The goal of authentic Jewish identity is the same; the approach is just a matter of perspective.
Family Discussion: Which is your approach to ritual? Why?


Literature to share

The Shema in the Mezuzah: Listening to Each Other by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso — Another brilliant illustrated book from a multiple award-winning children’s author, The Shema tells the story of how the mezuzah came to be slanted on the doorpost. A taste of rabbinic lore, a bit of ethical teaching, and a lot of fun, this book should be on every family’s bookshelf.

The Defector by Daniel Silva — An Israeli spy disguised as an art restorer for the Vatican. A former Russian intelligence officer turned defector. A kidnapping. A disappearance. Vengeance. A master novelist for espionage, mayhem, intrigue and thrills, Silva has created yet another cliff-hanger in his Gabriel Allon series, of which this is the ninth. For the back-story, read it along with its precursor, Moscow Rules. You won’t be disappointed.

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