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Inventing Jewish Ritual

Authored by Vanessa L. Ochs; Forward by Riv-Ellen Prell

Publication Year: 2007

Vanessa Ochs invites her readers to explore how Jewish practice can be more meaningful through renewing, reshaping, and even creating new rituals, such as naming ceremonies for welcoming baby girls, healing services, Miriam's cup, mitzvah days, egalitarian wedding practices, and commitment ceremonies. We think of rituals -- the patterned ways of doing things that have shared and often multiple meanings -- as being steeped in tradition and therefore unalterable. But rituals have always been reinvented. When we perform ancient rituals in a particular place and time they are no longer quite the same rituals they once were. Each is a debut, an innovation: this Sabbath meal, this Passover seder, this wedding -- firsts in their own unique ways. In the last 30 years there has been a surge of interest in reinventing ritual, in what is called minhag America. Ochs describes the range and diversity of interest in this Jewish American experience and examines how it reflects tradition as it revives Jewish culture and faith. And she shows us how to create our own ritual objects, sacred spaces, ceremonies, and liturgies that can be paths to greater personal connection with history and with holiness: baby-naming ceremonies for girls, divorce rituals, Shabbat practices, homemade haggadahs, ritual baths, healing services. Through these and more, we see that American Judaism is a dynamic cultural process very much open to change and a source of great personal and communal meaning.

Published by: Jewish Publication Society

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pp. vii-viii

I have been working on this book for over a decade now, and the obvious is indeed true: many of the Jewish rituals that were brandnew and provocative when I first began are so familiar, especially to young people growing up with them, that they already feel traditional. The book was the idea of Ellen Frankel, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Publication Society (JPS), and I am grateful ...

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pp. ix-xii

Jews are known as the “People of the Book” because Judaism is most often viewed as a religion based on texts. At the same time, Judaism is a religion of practices and rituals. Candle lighting for Shabbat (the Sabbath) and holidays, blessings over wine and bread, affixing a mezuzah to a doorpost, the Passover seder—these and more constitute part of the core of Jewish life. What is the ...

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Introduction: Becoming a Ritual Innovator

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pp. 1-38

I became, over years of thinking about new Jewish rituals, a ritual innovator myself. Study, practice, and needs of the moment catapulted me into this; and with the passage of time, I embraced the role with confidence—pride and pleasure even. I came to affirm wholeheartedly that Judaism is a dynamic, evolving tradition, one continuously sculpted by its loving practitioners ...

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1. Democracy, Open Access, and Jewish Feminism

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pp. 39-56

Many innovations came about during a period whose spiritual and moral aesthetic are best captured by the Jewish catalogs. The First Jewish Catalog was published by The Jewish Publication Society in 1973, and was followed by a second volume in 1976, and a third in 1980.

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2. The Narrative Approach

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pp. 57-86

As we try to understand how new Jewish rituals are generated,we will consider them from a variety of angles. We will turn to two approaches as we explore the overarching questions of why we gravitate both toward and away from ritual innovation and how new rituals are incorporated into cultural practice. One approach studies the narratives of new ritual, and the other studies ritual from the perspective of material culture. Narratives will be discussed in this...

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3. Material Culture: New Rituals and Ritual Objects

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pp. 87-111

While not all new Jewish rituals are linked to new ritual objects, a good many are. Some objects—such as an orange on the seder plate, a Miriam’s cup, a mezuzah made from the shards of glass shattered at a wedding ceremony, even a car mezuzah—may be even more familiar than the rituals in which they are used. Consequently, we need to ...

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4. Stretched by Innovation

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pp. 113-137

Despite tinkering, tweaking, and radical transformation, Judaism—even when stretched by innovation—remains fundamentally intact. Jews are maintaining their figurative place along a “golden chain” of transmission. There is compelling evidence of continuity in an era characterized by what Susan Berrin, editor of Sh’ma, calls an “efflorescence of new rituals, created ...

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5. Change: Resisting and Acclimating

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pp. 139-165

As the late Judah Goldin, scholar of post biblical literature, once wrote, “To change we are all subject, perhaps most profoundly when we offer greatest resistance; adaptation, on the other hand, requires genius.”¹ All religions with deep historical roots are works in progress, and Judaism is no exception. However much one ...

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6. Case Study 1: Miriam's Tambourine

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pp. 167-186

I first noticed tambourines in the homes of Lubavitch Hasidic women, though it was not initially clear to me that I was seeing what was for these women an important new ritual object: a “Miriam’s tambourine.”¹ I saw the tambourines first in Morristown, New Jersey—then my hometown and the home of the Lubavitch Rabbinical College of America. I was doing fieldwork between March and...

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7. Case Study 2: The Holocaust Torah

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pp. 187-213

Nearly every faith has standard rituals of purification or reconsecration that restore holiness to sacred objects that have been desecrated or compromised. In Judaism, there is a ritual practice for holy books that contain the name of God but can no longer be used because they are damaged. These traditionally have ...

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8. Case Study 3: The Wedding Booklet

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pp. 215-249

Marriage requires compromise, and wedding planning offers boot-camp preparation as a couple decides whether their wedding will be an intimate ceremony or a gala affair, her rabbi or his, a klezmer band or a string quartet, the marinated chicken breast served on a bed of basmati rice garnished with asparagus, or the seared aged fillet of beef served with tomato ...

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Epilogue: Inheriting Invented Traditions

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pp. 251-257

I follow the instructions I have been sent in the mail to prepare for a retreat held by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. It is for rabbis and cantors of various denominations who already have begun a training program in contemplative practices; some Jewish scholars like me have been invited too. Reading the packing list reminds me of getting ready for Jewish summer ...

Appendix: Record, Take It Down, Collect

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pp. 259-270


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pp. 271-276

E-ISBN-13: 9780827611184
Print-ISBN-13: 9780827608344

Publication Year: 2007