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Rethinking New Rituals

From Brooklyn’s Hasidim to gay Jewish weddings

In Inventing Jewish Ritual (JPS, $25.00), anthropologist Vanessa Ochs turns her eye to contemporary Jewish communities. She brings a much-needed set of critical tools to the analysis of Jewish ritual and, in particular, to the innovative practices that have sprung up across the American Jewish landscape over the past few decades. Examining phenomena ranging from students hosting a women’s seder at the University of Virginia (where Ochs is professor of Jewish Studies), to a rabbi hanging a mezuzah in his car, to couples marrying under huppot handcrafted by friends, Ochs not only legitimizes recent ritual innovation but also gives the layperson the terminology to describe and understand how rituals develop and why so many find them meaningful.

Inventing Jewish Ritual is in part a personal look at how Ochs overcomes her resistance to new rituals, eventually becoming an innovator herself. She recalls, for instance, how she imagined her grandparents disapproving of any deviation from their own typically traditional Judaism. Considering ritual from an anthropological perspective — by asking what it is that rituals do — allowed Ochs to “stop looking backward for signs of an authentic Judaism in an enchanted shtetl. There has never been a totally separate and endogamous community that knows only Jewish culture, beliefs, texts and traditional observance.” She then argues that new rituals offer the possibility of making Judaism newly relevant.

The first chapters discuss the history of contemporary Jewish ritual innovation, the importance of narrative and material objects in the creation of new rituals, and the process by which a new ritual comes to be accepted or rejected by a particular community, including simchat bat ceremonies welcoming newborn baby girls, chocolate seders, and the recitation of the Shema as a meditative practice. A reader may soon find that she, like Ochs, is seeing ritual everywhere she turns. These chapters will be of interest to anyone who has struggled to understand, explain or defend contemporary Jewish ritual innovation. There is also a “how-to” guide to observing religious innovation which advises readers to “record, take down, and collect” the rituals and ritual artifacts they see around them.

The richest part of this volume is Ochs’ presentation of three lengthy case studies: Lubavitch Hasidic women preparing tambourines so they can dance when the Messiah arrives, just as the biblical Miriam led the Israelite women in dancing; the process of an American synagogue’s adoption of a “Holocaust Torah”; and the use of booklets to explain and preserve a couple’s adaptation of Jewish wedding rituals. Here, Ochs’ writing is at its most vivid, as she draws the reader into very different worlds of religious meaning-making, moving from the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s deathbed in Crown Heights to a gay wedding in Manhattan’s Brotherhood Synagogue.

Claire E. Sufrin is a Ph.D. Candidate in Modern Jewish Thought at Stanford University and a Visiting Lecturer in Jewish Studies at Northeastern University.