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Ritual in the United States

by Shulamit S. Magnus

Ritual is an act or a set of actions that employs symbols meaningful to the participants in a formal, repetitive, and stylized fashion. Ritual frames significant moments and important new realities. It is often used to effect transition from one state of being to another, as in weddings, funerals, or graduations. It is one of the most fundamental ways that human beings mark meaning in their personal lives and in the lives of their families and societies. Ritual is created in response to primal human terror that the universe is not inherently ordered and that human existence is ultimately physical and nothing more. Its power lies in the fact that it addresses and engages the body. In the words of the anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, “Rituals persuade the body...; [in ritual] the entire human sensorium [is involved] through dramatic presentation.”

Ritual behavior is universal and innate—witness how young children ritualize accidental behaviors at bedtime, a time of transition from waking to sleep, by insisting on their subsequent precise repetition. It is one of the primary ways an individual or a culture conveys understanding of self to itself or to others and is one of the chief means of conveying that message to future generations. As the anthropologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “Ritual is mythology made alive.” Thus, ritual transmits traditions and can be a powerful agent of cultural conservation. However, precisely because of the dynamic human need it addresses and because material and cultural circumstance change, ritual is constantly being invented, sculpting new meaning for a changed present and for the future. Ritual therefore, can also be a powerful vehicle for social and cultural change.

Ritual behavior is one of the fundamental pillars of Judaism, and of all religions, whose concern is precisely with ultimate meaning and purpose. Men in normative (rabbinic) Judaism have far more access to the sacred through personal ritual than do women. Under Jewish law (halakhah), males are required to don ritual garments (zizit, tallit), which symbolically represent all 613 commandments of the Torah. Males over age thirteen are required to strap miniscrolls containing key verses of the Torah to the head and arm (phylacteries, or tefillin) and to make repeated signs of the letter shin, which represents one of God’s names, with the straps, thus literally, binding themselves to Torah and emblazoning God’s name on their bodies. A ritualized way of shearing hair leaves the “corners” of the male head conspicuously uncut (pe’ot). Ritual covering of the head is required of all males, as is the growth of full, untrimmed beards. The only time that ritual bodily cutting, otherwise anathematized, is not only allowed but enjoined in Judaism is ritual circumcision (berit milah), performed as a sign of covenant with God (significantly, on the male organ). These ritualized behaviors effectively sacralize the male body, making it a carrier of the sacred and a vehicle for public demonstration of connectedness to God and Torah.

There is no analogous sacralization of the female body in traditional Judaism. On the contrary, such quintessentially female biological functions as menstruation and childbirth plunge women into a state of ritual impurity, Niddah [see also Female Purity], meaning “separate,” “outcast,” “ostracized.” Although technically, all Jews are considered ritually impure since loss of the sacrificial system of purification in the Temple, niddah is by far the most elaborate of all the functional remnants of the purity laws, and the one with the greatest behavioral consequences, requiring sexual abstinence and physical separation for a minimum of twelve days a cycle, and even longer after a birth. Female head covering, enjoined for married women only, is not, like that of men, referenced to God. Rather, it signals sexual unavailability to any male but the husband and derives from a male-centered perception of women as sexual objects to men.

The extensive world of family and public ritual in normative Judaism is also a male preserve. By religious law or social custom, such fundamental acts as sanctifying the wine and ritually cutting and blessing the bread on the Sabbath and festivals, performing the ritual which formally ends the Sabbath and holidays, lighting Hanukkah candles, leading the Passover seder, dwelling in the Tabernacle, blessing and waving the Four Species on Tabernacles, counting in a prayer quorum, leading services, making blessings over the Torah reading, public reading of the Torah and rejoicing with the Torah on the Festival of the Torah (Simhat Torah), are all restricted to men.

While women are obligated to observe many of the laws of the Sabbath, festivals, and mourning, especially the prohibitions (“negative mitzvot”), and all those concerning the ritual diet, there are only three female-specific rituals in rabbinic Judaism. These are: hallah-removing and burning a portion of dough before it is baked, lighting the Sabbath and holiday candles, and observing the laws of niddah, which culminate in the woman’s immersion in a ritual bath (Mikveh), after which sexual relations between husband and wife may resume. In fact, however, anyone who bakes is obligated to the dough ritual, and in the absence of a woman, men are obligated to light holiday candles, making the only true female-specific rituals those surrounding uterine or vaginal bleeding, with its attendant connotations. By contrast, men’s immersion in the mikveh is voluntary and is performed to ready them for the Sabbath, holidays, or other sacred pursuits, such as Torah study. This leads to the feminist plaint that through mikveh, men ready themselves for God and women ready themselves for men.

Over the centuries, Jewish women elaborated a rich set of rituals with which they sacralized their daily lives, major life-cycle events, and holidays (on which, see below). Intensely meaningful and authoritative to them, these rituals nevertheless did not enjoy the status in the larger community of those ordained by the rabbis (that is, they remained “women’s” rituals, while rabbinic rituals are seen as “Jewish”). The world of female ritual was almost completely obliterated in modern times as women’s forms of spiritual expression, always seen as unlearned and superstitious, were also condemned as unmodern and a threat to Jewish efforts to achieve equality and acceptance in non-Jewish society. As a result, the earliest wave of Jewish feminists perceived only the paucity of normative ritual for women in Judaism. This paucity, the negative associations of some existing ritual, and the utter male-centeredness of most ritual in rabbinic Judaism became the prime area of protest and the spur for creative adaptation and innovation in Jewish feminism.

In the past twenty-five years, feminists have elaborated a host of new rituals for women. Some of these, like the Bat Mitzvah for girls (actually initiated by the founder of Reconstructionism, Mordecai Kaplan, in 1922), parallel the established ritual for boys, celebrating attainment of the age of adult responsibility for the commandments of Judaism through such public acts as Torah and haftarah reading, leading services, and giving a devar Torah. Complementarity—appropriating male-identified ritual for females—is not always possible or desirable, however. A prime example is feminist birth rituals for girls. In traditional Ashkenazi practice, the birth of a daughter is marked by the father reciting blessings over the Torah in the synagogue on the Monday, Thursday, or Saturday immediately following the birth, at which point he names the baby, usually in the presence of neither mother nor child. The flagrant imbalance between this modest ritual and that of the berit milah for boys was one of the first that Jewish feminists addressed. However, few have accepted the suggestion of ritual rupture of the hymen as a physical analogue to circumcision. Rather, feminists have created other ceremonies to celebrate the birth of girls and initiate them into the community, such as immersion of the baby in a mikveh, washing her feet as a sign of welcome, wrapping her in a prayer shawl, and lighting candles. Birth ceremonies and some form of bat mitzvah for girls have now become ubiquitous on the Jewish scene, including Orthodoxy, attesting the strength of the feminist critique and the degree to which it has been internalized in a remarkably short time, even by those who claim to reject feminism and the larger culture from which Jewish feminism has borrowed its impulse.

The “first phase” of Jewish feminism, in the 1970s, focused on equality: gaining access to and appropriating male-identified rituals and rights, such as donning sacred garments and counting in a prayer quorum. Innovation, however, has become the predominant Jewish feminist expression. In the metaphor of the Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow, feminists want to bake a new pie rather than merely get a piece of the old one. The quest for equality, Plaskow and others argue, is inherently inegalitarian because women seek male-identified roles but men do not value or appropriate traditionally female rituals or spirituality. It is also assimilatory, since ritual and spiritual traditions developed by women are seen as inferior and unworthy of perpetuation. Thus, the quest for equality is based on and reinscribes male normativeness in Judaism, while suppressing specifically female spiritual expression. This situation is analogous to that of Jews or other minorities seeking equality who adopt the majority culture, but forsake their own. As Jews have moved from seeking only equality in the larger society to seeking continued Jewish identity as well as equality, Jewish feminists have evolved from merely adopting male-identified ritual to also elaborating a specifically female ritual expression. Thus, while women in all the movements but Orthodoxy (and even this exclusion is no longer hermetic), now discharge the same traditional functions as men, a host of new rituals have been created to mark female experience. These include rituals for menarche, menopause, pregnancy, labor, birth, infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, abortion, adoption, weaning, hysterectomy, and attaining older-age wisdom.

Many of these rituals celebrate female biological functions. Most feminists have rejected the criticism that this defines women biologically, diminishing their full humanity, as patriarchal culture historically has done. Rather, they argue, these rituals assign positive value to functions that traditionally were ignored or despised and have given Jewish women a means to affirm their bodies in a religion that blesses such other bodily functions as bladder and intestinal evacuation.

Feminists have also modified existing rituals to reflect women’s full personhood in Judaism, for example, fashioning egalitarian marriage and divorce ceremonies. They have created feminist Passover seders and ushpizin ceremonies in the sukkah to welcome the Biblical matriarchs, paralleling the traditional invitation to the patriarchs. Some feminists have reclaimed mikveh, rejected out of hand by many, choosing to see in its waters a primal symbol of creation and nurturing, reminiscent of amniotic waters. Feminists use mikveh, however, to affirm female biological functions with no reference to men or to sex, to mark other beginnings or ends, such as birth, menarche, or divorce, or in rituals for physical or emotional healing. Lesbians have created commitment and divorce ceremonies to solemnize lesbian relationships and bring these into the fold of Jewish celebration. Unabashed woman-centeredness marks these rituals.

Feminists have reclaimed Rosh Hodesh, the new moon (celebration of the new month), traditionally a semiholiday for women, creating Rosh Hodesh groups, which have become a chief venue for creating and transmitting new rituals, including birth ceremonies for girls and adult bat mitzvahs, and for female experience of what anthropologists call “communitas,” radical bonding of those sharing a liminal state or moment. Feminists have reworked the language of ritual by including the matriarchs, feminizing God language or creating grammatically neutral forms to address and name God, and by changing divine images from ones of hierarchy and dominion to ones of immanence, creation, and nurturing. Some have reclaimed and reworked traditional forms of women’s spiritual expression, such as Tkhines, private, often intensely personal and moving petitionary prayers that Ashkenazi women recited at candle lighting, immersion in the mikveh, baking, and scores of other sacred or sacralized acts, such as making memorial candles for the dead or celebrating the eruption of a baby’s first tooth. Core male rituals have also been feminized, the participation of the mother and other women, for example, being added to the traditional circumcision ritual. Feminists have also created new rituals to mark the birth of boys, in addition to circumcision, in which the male organ is not the center of attention or sacralization. In this, they have brought feminist ritual creativity to the religious socialization of men, a major new phase in Jewish feminism and Judaism altogether. There are now published collections of feminist Jewish liturgies and rituals, including Penina Adleman’s Miriam’s Well, Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings, the Lifecycles series edited by Debra Orenstein, and a guide to birth ceremonies compiled by the New York branch of the National Council of Jewish Women, testifying to the existence of a reading and practicing constituency and to a process of standardization that is underway. In all this activity, feminists have laid claim not just to perpetuate Judaism as elaborated by male authorities but to fashion it themselves, in their image, as men historically have fashioned Judaism in male image, and have begun to create a feminist Judaism. Their efforts are a prime example of ritual operating as an agent of fundamental cultural change and the rapidity with which such change can occur.

For all the unabashed innovation of feminist ritual, indeed, because of it, feminists have sought and found much precedent for female-specific ritual by women in traditional Jewish societies. They point to zeved habat (gift of a daughter) birth ceremonies held in Sephardi, North African, and Syrian communities, at home or in the synagogue, in which mothers and other female relatives participated and the names of the matriarchs were prominent in liturgies that appeared in standard prayer books (including in the current Spanish-Portuguese prayer book), or Rosh Hodesh festivities on which women relinquished domestic chores and practiced charitable and ritual activities in each other’s company. Scholars such as Chava Weissler and Susan Starr Sered have brought to light rich worlds of female spirituality and ritual within traditional Ashkenazi and Kurdish Jewries, respectively. They have shown how traditional women who completely accepted and indeed venerated rabbinic authority nevertheless authorized themselves to become, in Sered’s words, “ritual experts.” These women sacralized every imaginable aspect of their lives through rituals they created and then successfully communicated as binding for the women of the community—as close an analogue to halakhah (rabbinic law and authority) as one could have. While feminists reject the marginalization that was the context and site for women’s ritual in traditional Jewish societies, they welcome a “usable past” within Judaism to mitigate the sense of breach with Jewish tradition in Jewish feminism, to validate their own ritual creativity, and to contribute one of the essential elements of successful ritual: a sense of naturalness, seamlessness, and harmony.

Jewish feminists have created separate space—literally and figuratively (in Rosh Hodesh groups, retreats, publications)—in which to elaborate their creations. But they have also claimed traditional male Jewish ritual space, in synagogues and rabbinical schools, as rightfully women’s as well as men’s. U.S. feminists were prominent in the creation in December, 1988, of a group of women, who subsequently named themselves the Women of the Wall and are led by Israelis, who claimed no less than Judaism’s most sacred site, the (women’s section of the) Western Wall in Jerusalem, as a place for women’s group prayer, including Torah reading and the use of sacred ritual garments, and women’s rituals, such as bat mitzvahs and birth celebrations. In a prime expression of the women-centeredness that defines Jewish feminism, this group was from its founding and remains adamantly metadenominational, independent of any of the established religious movements, affirming solely Jewish women’s religious expression and solidarity.

Jewish feminist rituals reject, create, and also integrate, since the vast majority of Jewish feminists choose to remain within the Jewish community and in remaining, profoundly affect the rest of Judaism. If, in Evan M. Zuesse’s words, rituals “rescue (profane activity) from the terror of inconsequentiality and meaninglessness,” Jewish feminist rituals also rescue feminists from invisibility and derogation in their religious tradition and thus, for all their newness, indeed, because of it, are a prime agent of continued identification. They are without doubt one of the richest creative streams in contemporary Judaism.

Bibliography

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Feminist seders have provided an important context for developing women’s spirituality. In 1975, a group of Israeli and American women decided to create their own Passover seder based on their experiences as Jewish women. Now an annual event held in Manhattan, it has been attended by Esther Broner, Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Bella Abzug, Grace Paley and several other "Seder Sisters" who have played important roles in the development of Jewish feminism. Shown here are Bella Abzug, Phyllis Chesler and Letty Cottin Pogrebin at the Women's Seder in 1991.

Photographer: Joan Roth

How to cite this page

Magnus, Shulamit S.. "Ritual in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 27, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ritual-in-united-states>.

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