Case Study

New Rituals in Jewish Tradition

(From an interview with Rabbi Leila Gal Berner conducted by Elizabeth Holland, Philadelphia, 1992)

There's a whole trend right now in Judaism towards filling in the gaps in the life cycle in other words, creating rituals for life-cycle transitions for which there are no traditional rituals.

Men and women from all over the country, from the left wing of the Conservative movement of Judaism, from the Reform movement, and from the Reconstructionist movement feel that part of reconnecting, or connecting more meaningfully with our tradition is making sure that all the passages of the life cycle are addressed. Rather than creating something completely new, people are going back into the Jewish tradition to find pieces, often pieces from scripture, to adapt to a particular life-cycle moment, and create a ritual. The Orthodox movement is doing this a little, but much less, because they are much more bound into the traditional system.

The feminist movement of the 1970s pushed Jewish women to look at the issue of ritual, because traditionally women have not been included fully in Jewish religious life. As a result, women have been at the forefront of creating new rituals, although, with the emergence of the men's movement, men too have begun to create alternative rituals. Women are saying, "We want to be engaged actively in the process, and have the privileges and the responsibilities that come with being engaged in this tradition. We want to learn; we want to study,, we want to speak; and we want to preach." In the past decade-and- a-half, there's been an unbelievable flowering of life-cycle rituals for women: covenant-making ceremonies for infant girls, rituals for the onset of menstruation, for pregnancy, for menopause, for hysterectomies, and a ritual celebrating the wisdom of women who have reached sixty or more years of age.

Because this is such a new phenomenon, none of the ritual is canonized. In most religious traditions, it takes several centuries to test new religious innovations and see whether or not they stand the test of time and become deeply imbedded in the tradition. We are at the beginning, the first few decades of the process. When we experiment with all this new liturgy and new ritual, we are saying that for our generation this is meaningful. What may or may not happen is that it will take root in the whole of Judaism and eventually become "traditional."

A good example in our century is the Bat Mitzvah. The first Bat Mitzvah in history happened only seventy years ago. An American Rabbi, Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, had three daughters. Ideologically, he believed that women should have full rights in Judaism. He felt that if a boy is invested with the responsibilities of adulthood at his Bar Mitzvah, then why not a girl? So, his oldest daughter Judith had a Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Because 1992 marks the seventieth anniversary of the Bat Mitzvah, many women rabbis of the Reconstructionist movement are converging on New York. Judith is still alive, she's eighty-two, and we're having a huge celebration.

In our time, religion simply cannot remain stagnant. it has to respond to a whole new set of challenges as reflected in these new rituals. Recently a woman came to me who unfortunately had to abort her baby, because the pregnancy threatened her life. About three months afterward, she came to me and said, "I feel like the tradition ignores me. I need a way to address my grief. There's no funeral ceremony for a six -month-old fetus. There's no ritual for it. I'm just supposed to go on with my life." With a few of her closest friends, we sat down and talked about how we might, in a Jewish setting, address her need to grieve. We took some of the rituals of the traditional funeral, invited her closest friends to the synagogue, and had a memorial service for this unborn child, and a ritual of grieving and healing for her. Had our community not been responsive to her, I think this woman might have walked away from Judaism. That's the kind of challenge religion is facing today.

Previous Case Study | Table of Contents | Next Case Study