The Ritual Impulse


The ritual impulse is very strong. Without ritual our ideas float disembodied in the ether, unable to touch our emotions; and our beliefs stay unsupported by action and experience. And, no less important, rituals create community, a sense of unity and belonging with the people with whom we share our rituals, a sense of group identity, and of personal definition as part of this group.

For a long time, women had no access to such ritual communion. Unable to share fully in the public Jewish rituals, they lived their religious lives passively, watching the men say the prayers and read the Torah; domestically, participating in home rituals on Sabbath, Passover, Chanukah and (to a lesser extent) Sukkot; and privately, reciting the Psalms, or books of hours, or the many techinot, the Yiddish devotional literature written by and for women.

There are rumors that women also had a shared religious life, for we read mentions of Rosh Chodesh (new moon) feasts of women, and we imagine a ritual content to these occasions and perhaps to such shared experiences as visiting new mothers. But what this content might have been has been lost, and in the modern world all such ritual events disappeared, leaving women bereft of a communal ritual life.

All this has changed in recent years with the appearance of Jewish feminist consciousness. There have been two main thrusts of movement: towards participation in the traditional public liturgy of Judaism, and towards the creation of new women’s rituals.

Miriam’s Well seeks to provide a source book of ideas, rituals, and images to help women form and enjoy women’s rituals. In part, it is the record of a liturgical year in the life of the Philadelphia Rosh Chodesh group, and provides ideas on how to form other such groups.

The celebrations in this book seek to create a sacred time for women in which they are free to reinterpret sacred symbol and story, and in which they foster positive images of the female body. Every month, the group meets to hold a special ritual keyed to that month.

Some months concentrate on the familiar Jewish calendar: the New Year, Chanukah, Tu Beshvat (New Year of the Trees), Purim, Pesach, Shavuot, Tish’a B’Av (fast mourning the destruction of the Temple). Other monthly meetings focus on life cycle events: menarche, marriage, pregnancy, birth, infertility/ miscarriage, menopause, mourning. Sometimes the actions taken are traditional: lighting candles, performing tashlich (ceremony “casting sins” into the waters), making masks for Purim, but infused with special meaning; and sometimes they are totally different from traditional liturgy: meditations, dances, wailing. There is always song, and the telling of new stories; food, and talk.

The traditional liturgy is hallowed precisely because it is traditional. Although some of us may rebel at certain lines of Siddur (prayer book) that we simply cannot say, for the most part we pay little attention to the words of the prayers: it is the rhythm of the repetition, the always-sameness, the sharing with those present and those long-past, the record of Israel’s yearning for God that matters. New rituals cannot count on such an automatic response and, as a result, are to some degree determined by personal taste.

There are some very moving elements to this book. The life-cycle rituals in this book are appealing—they break totally new ground and allow the intensely private to be shared. Through rituals of menarche and menopause, all women feel united. The remembering of the departed, the support offered the pregnant woman, the bathing of the new mother, are moving liturgies: moreover, such occasions open the door to the serious sharing of one’s own experiences of one’s body.

But some of the rituals in the book seem flat, at least to me.

I cannot participate in a group wailing, though l know that this wailing has been a great ritual for women since the beginning of history. The zodiac has no meaning for me.

And I would rather say, “Berucha At Adonai”—Blessed Are You, O God, using the feminine forms—while saying the proper name of God as it is traditionally pronounced. I do not want to declare that this name and the whole Biblical God it refers to is a male-only image. To address my prayers to a separable female immanent presence of God, the Shekhinah, indicates to me that the rest of God is male.

There are other problems. The over-identification of the moon and females is a Jungian psycho-mishmash. The moon has not always been seen as a woman: in ancient Sumer and Babylon, the moon was a male figure, and it was the evening and morning star (the planet Venus) that was believed to be female.

Menstruation may be regulated by pheromones rather than the phases of the moon. Certainly the waxing and waning of the moon calls to mind the changes of a woman’s body, but too much lunar meditation goes nowhere.

So, too, does the automatic acceptance of such cultural stereotypes as masculine-active/aggressive and feminine-passive/receptive. There is no passive female in the Bible, and there may be none in any pre-modern Judaic source. What do we gain from adopting current psychological trains of thought as deep sacred Jewish truths?

Such misconceptions go along with a lack of knowledge. There is no great depth of Judaic learning here. The great women studied and remembered are the accessible heroines of the Bible, but we should also be inviting to our feasts some of the lesser known women from all of Jewish history, unsung heroines with voices waiting to be heard.

We should try to find some way of connecting the new women’s lifecycle events with traditional Jewish language and symbol so that there is a Judaic value to performing them within a Jewish setting that goes beyond what we might gain from sharing such events in a non-religious or neo-pagan setting.

This is a program of action rather than criticism of this book, which is a very valuable beginning. There is a rich compendium of ritual ideas in this book, so that each new group formed should be able to use it as a springboard for its own ideas. As Jewish tradition teaches, “You are not responsible for completing the task, but neither should you refrain from advancing it.” Penina Adelman and her group have documented the beginnings of a major endeavor.

Tikva Frymer-Kensky is Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, teaching Women and Religion. She is currently completing Motherprayer, a book of creative essays and poems toward a theology of birth, to be published by Beacon Press: and The Bible in the Wake of the Goddess, to be published by The Free Press.