Thursday, February 10, 2011

Another Book Review: Inventing Jewish Ritual

First, thanks for all your recommendations for my next book. I decided to go with Art Green's Radical Judaism; it's actually been on my wish list for a while, as I'm a little bit of an Art Green nerd and have been since I studied Hasidism at Oberlin with Miles Krassen, followed by his theological writings, and the interview of him I read for when I did the PEER program.

His approach to Judaism--that is, the reimagining of the religious experience through the modern use of traditional material, including texts and rituals--are on display in Vanessa Ochs' book Inventing Jewish Ritual. Indeed, early on she defines Judaism as

a dynamic, evolving tradition, one continuously sculpted by its loving practitioners. Jews keep Judaism alive through inventing new rituals-moving, fulfilling and authentically Jewish rituals.

As with Judith Shulevitz' book, I was a little hesitant to read this despite my interest in creating new--and redefining traditional--Jewish rituals. Too often such books are self-congratulatory attempts at preserving some element of hippy culture, and Ochs' book skirts the edge of that. However, there is much to be learned here, both in her approach to ritual and tradition as well as the systematic way she breaks down modern rituals and their impact.

The book is broken up into three components, scattered throughout. The first is the author's own spiritual journey and discovery that she "could go about making new rituals without fanfare and without drawing much attention." Through this we see her own struggle between modernity and tradition (which, as we saw with Shulevitz's book, is resonant for nearly all modern Jews in North America) and her increasing sense of self-permission to 'rewrite the rules'; that is, create new rituals using traditional elements when the need arises. She describes her first baby naming (for a girl) and the radical impact it had on her.

The second component is a sociological study of ritual; how are rituals created? What is their history and mythology? Can one deconstruct rituals, even modern ones? This is a great analysis of a variety of modern rituals, including the orange on the seder plate, the use of certain niggunim and their origins, the creation of wedding brochures, and the like. It's great fun as she traces email exchanges and personal interviews to show how even rituals that have been invented in the last 10 years are quickly surrounded by a fog of mystery and awe.

The third is the discussion of how one might go about creating rituals for ones self. That issue of Authenticity comes up frequently in this aspect, with a fairly permissive stance, with a sense that Judaism is strong enough to withstand even the most bizarre innovations. Some quotes:

I needed to recognize that even clumsy or misguided efforts held redemptive possibility-if only for the innovator. Less successful ritual practices would fade away. Even the innovations that were misguided, even crude or tasteless, would not destroy "the whole thing".
I wondered "is this permitted?" (what did I imagine to be the source of permission granting?...)

I no longer asked, "Is this new ritual really Jewish?" but instead asked, "What new rituals are Jews actually practicing?"

She also insists on the idea that new rituals can be liberating and redeeming for Jews who are on the fence as to their Jewish experience:

Rather than blaming Jewish tradition for its being hard to penetrate or complaining that synagogues are boring and cold places, you can take responsibility for your own spiritual well-being by shaping Jewish experiences that resonate with your world and your life.

While in some ways this book isn't quite geared for me as a reader (as a Jewish professional I have no problem inventing new rituals, sometimes on the fly, sometimes without even realizing it), it was a captivating read. Ochs' story of her own self-discovery--especially influenced by her search for a strong female voice in Judaism--is quite compelling. She gives reassurance to the Jew who is exploring creating something new or changing something that seems monolithic: the Jew-by-choice leading her first Passover Seder, the wedding couple bridging multiple traditions and levels of observance, the young seeker who is trying to contextualize an experience through ritual.

And she casts aspersions on the endless games of one-upsmanship that Jews play with each other

Listen to Jews interrogate each other. We do not typically ask, "Do you believe in God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might?" We will not ask, "Do you remember that God rested on the Sabbath day by keeping it holy?" Rather we inquire about the materiality of enacted beliefs and habits of conviction: "Do you drive a car on Shabbat? Carry keys? In your house, do you separate your meat and milk dishes in different cabinets and have two sinks? DO you cover your head, wear a wig, put on tefillin, hang a mezuzah on your door...
If you're at all interested in ritual, even if you don't see yourself as a ritual innovator, I recommend this book.

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