The essays you are about to read are responses to Catherine Mad-sen's provocative and ongoing critique of new liturgy and her implicit challenges to liturgical creators to achieve excellence. Madsen shared her most recent thoughts in the context of a conference on Jewish Renaissances, held at the University of Virginia, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the UVA Jewish Studies program. A theological response was offered by Randi Rashover (George Mason University) and a literary response by Caroline Rody (University of Virginia). The conversation continues on, drawing to it the essays by Steven Kepnis (Colgate University) and Leah Hochman (Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion/Los Angeles) that you will see here as well.
A conversation such as this is situated in the broader context of discussions of new religious ritual. (For this discussion, I propose that we use the term "ritual" most capaciously, so that it could include simple or elaborate ceremonies; objects; or the written words, music, and gestures of liturgies.) What might it mean to assess a new ritual that has been innovated in our lifetimes?
There is the matter of timing. It takes time for a new ritual to fully take shape and time too for people to overcome their anxieties about innovation. The kinks have to been ironed out, and the new ritual has to have already been able to gather about itself some of the patina of "authenticity" that familiarity deposits. When is it appropriate to step back and say, "OK, so what do we think?"
There is the matter of who is empowered to stand in the place of judgment, or whose opinions "count." Everyday people who vote "with their feet?" Local clergy, denominational leaders, or the publication committees of the manuals that clergy draw upon? And what about the perspective of scholars of ritual, perhaps members of religious communities who are living with, even initiating, the innovations?
Imagine for a moment that such preliminary issues have been sufficiently resolved or set aside for the purpose of discussion, and only one question remains: How should a new ritual be evaluated? I will inquire about Jewish rituals and offer examples from Judaism, but I suspect that my line of inquiry might easily apply to other traditions.
It is a commonplace that many new Jewish rituals, ceremonies, liturgies, and ritual objects have been incubated in our own era and have flourished. There is ritual innovation occasioned by feminism, the Holocaust, and the birth of the State of Israel. There is innovation that responds to absences, marks the unmarked, shapes new collective memories, and reflects political and social changes. What is particularly distinctive about our era is the role of technology: thanks to the mimeograph machine, the copier, the fax, the Internet, and social networking platforms, new Jewish rituals "go viral." On the eve of September 11, 2001, Jewish communities throughout America seeking to hold vigils were downloading a service of traditional prayers and selected poems, and even a prayer immediately composed Jeffrey A. Spitzer. As we can see from one of its verses that I cite here, it placed the destruction of the day in relationship to the classic site of destruction, that of Jerusalem, creating a liturgical apparatus for creating meaning at a time of shock:
New York and Washington, shining cities, Diminished like Jerusalem after the destruction of the holy Temple, need Your comfort, and our aid; help us to maintain our courage and our efforts to support our people.(1)
Historically, we know that Jews have always been busy innovating ritual, either because of crisis, exile, trauma or, in gentler times, the necessities of accommodating to changing cultural contexts, and novel ideas. The impulse to evaluate a ritual, by critiquing both practical and spiritual implications, is familiar too. The Babylonian Talmud preserves one of my favorite examples of a "best practices" discussion that takes place across generations. In debate form, it evaluates how travelers who are riding on a donkey should go about saying the thrice-daily Shmoneh Esrei prayer, said while standing. It is also referred to as the Amidah, "the standing"--obviously, the standing part is important. The Mishna states that if you are traveling by donkey, you should dismount and pray. But the Talmud offers variations: if you are riding on a donkey and it is time to pray and it just so happens that someone can hold your donkey, then by all means, dismount and pray. And if you are alone? Sit on your donkey and pray. But the most conclusive voice, the one that rules the day even as it introduces what seems like a transgressive practice, says that you should stay seated on your donkey and pray the standing prayer whether you have a donkey-minder or not. Given that a traveler's mind is unsettled with worries about making time (and about the donkey run-ning off), it is already hard enough to stay focused enough for meaning-ful prayer. Bottom line; the new ritual of remaining seated on your donkey if you are traveling, and saying the "standing" prayer is not only acceptable, but preferable. This classical model demonstrates how debaters insert criteria that they believe are appropriate. In this case, there is respect for God, respect for the accepted prayer practices of the day, and concern about the capacity of the one who engages in the ritual to have kawanah, spiritual engagement. In this case, sages (who had apparently gone on their share of donkey rides) decided spiritual engagement mattered most.
What are some of the criteria brought into play when deliberating over new ritual in our time? Now, as in the past, permissibility matters. Some will evaluate the new ritual in terms of their understanding of ha-lachah, Jewish law. Is this new ritual in accordance with halachah, is it obviously a transgression, or is the matter so difficult to resolve that only many sages, in conference with each other, can arrive at some decision after what can be protracted debate, as it has been in the case of same-sex marriage ceremonies. Jews who use other criteria for making religious decisions (such as the power of tradition, the history of the community, or the demands of ethics) will come up with other standards that guide them. The problem with permissibility is always this: Who is making the judgment and how? Moreover, matters of permissibility inevitably create a debate between those whom I have termed guardians of continuity and agents of change. Simply put. the guardians of continuity tend to honor the traditions of the past and often feel that any innovations will erode precious inheritances of the past. Agents of change tend to believe that tradition is kept vibrant only when it flexibly and respectfully adapt to new situations.2 Endurance is another criteria evaluating how new ritual has withstood the test of time. The ceremony for welcoming baby girls into the covenantal community, practiced in various forms for over forty years, is a good example of a ritual that has been around long enough so that people now speak of it as "the traditional" ceremony for baby girls. (A text for it can be found in the rabbinic manuals of various denominations, another indication of endurance.) But "shelf life" is not always the relevant measure for new ritual. For instance, providing a fifth cup of wine at one's Passover seder and offering readings that addressed the need to free Soviet Jewry constituted an excellent, effective ritual in its time. But that prayer has already been "answered," so to speak, and the broader Jewish community has decided that it is no longer a touchstone for community engagement.(3)
Popularity is another criterion. Has the new ritual attracted "buy-in" from a broad number of constituents, allowing improvisation in different setting and situations? Holocaust memorial services, while their form has not quite coalesced, would be an example. But a customer-based assessment can be problematic. For instance, it is clear that more Jews practice ethnic "kosher-style eating" (not mixing milk and meat together, not eating shellfish or pork) than strict kashrut, the traditional dietary laws. Is the popular and more doable practice "superior"? That would be a complicated debate, one that would call for some distinction between ethnic/cultural behaviors and religious ones.
And how about evaluating a new ritual by its efficacy? Does the innovation do the work it promises, perhaps touching more people and more deeply than a traditional form? Many would claim that folk-inflected "Mi Sheberach" healing prayer composed by Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, has the power to persuade people that they are not alone when they are ill, God is present, the Jewish community is present, and their suffering is diminished. And now the flip side: what about those whose understanding about structure of the worship service and the ways in which personal requests are linked to Torah honor does not allow them to experience connection to tradition, community and God when the medium is a folk song blending Hebrew and English?
I could offer many more criteria: does the new ritual fills a pressing need, does it address a crisis, does it recognize changes in the community's composition I, myself (full disclosure, as journalists say: I am one of those academic scholars of new ritual who also plays various roles in innovating Jewish rituals) tend to evaluate new rituals according to three criteria. First, does it link to the classic texts or text structures, such as Talmudic conversation, the structure of liturgies, or legal writs? Second, does it make an overt or symbolic connection to traditional ritual objects (as Miriam's cup is linked to that of Elijah) or actions (as lighting six candles in memory of the Jewish who perished in the Holocaust is linked to the lighting of memorial candles)? And third, does it reflect core Jewish understandings (such as the one God, the place of ancestors, and the obligation to lead a sanctified life) and keep faith with them?
That said, there is no absolute set of criteria that would be absolutely relevant in each scenario or community. It is exceedingly hard to evaluate the new rituals we are in the process of living with and tweaking, especially when they bring with them challenging new paradigms for thinking about what it means to live in holiness. Making it harder still is our awareness, made most clear by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman in "Beyond the Text," that ritual forms are not just templates for objects or scripts: they are enacted, experienced, and manipulated in specific contexts and can have great or little meaning depending upon the community one is in, the mood that has been established, and the affective shifts between the fixed and the inspired.
But innovation, at the veiy least because it challenges and disrupts the familiar, demands some kind of response other than, "Oh no!" or "Whatever ..." Catherine Madsen initiates the inquiiy, positing a very particular set of demanding standards as she compares the newest liturgies to those that have been received and embraced.
Vanessa Ochs teaches in the Department of Religious Studies and the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Inventing Jewish Ritual.
(1.) http://www.jewishfederations.org/page.aspx?id=2381, accessed on January 26, 2011.
(2.) See Ochs Vanessa, 2007, Inventing Jewish Ritual Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, pp. 159-62.
(3.) I suspect that if there were large communities of religious Jews from the former Soviet Union, then their plight and subsequent rescue might continue to be addressed in the Passover Haggadah.