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This blog post originally appeared at Rituallwell.org
One of my favorite parts of being a rabbi and the director ofÂ InterfaithFamily/DCÂ is working with couples to prepare for their wedding. I meet with a lot of couples that come from diverse backgrounds and no two couples are the same. Each is a unique set of individuals bringing together their life experience, their families, and their hopes for the future.
Whatever kind of wedding they have in mind, I tell them that my goal is to create a ceremony together, a ritual which we can personalize so that their wedding reflects who they are as individuals and as a couple and their intentions for their life together. On the simplest level, a ritual helps us mark sacred time and helps us to be present in the moment. And no matter what the individualsâ backgrounds, I want their wedding to be one of many beautiful, meaningful, and accessible Jewish rituals in their lives.
When I teach couples about the components of the Jewish wedding ceremony, itâs often the first time they have learned about the meanings behind the rituals. And as with most things in Judaism, there are often multiple explanations for why a tradition came into practice. That fact alone is empowering for many people to learn that itâs ok that some explanations resonate and some donât.
The mission statement of Hebrew College, where I was ordained, says that âJudaism, at its best, is a creative, intellectual and spiritual encounter among the individual, the community and the received tradition.â As rabbinical students and rabbis, we are âencouraged and empowered to see ourselves as both inheritors and innovatorsâactive participants in the unfolding story of the Jewish people.â My role as a rabbi is to transmit a Judaism that is expansive enough to be inclusive and meaningful.
Our Talmud class on weddings had a big impact on me. We read ancient ketubot (wedding contracts) that varied in content and formulation, written hundreds of years before the standard Orthodox ketubah came into wide spread use and thousands of years before the myriad of modern-day options. We also learned about other kinds of marriage and partnership documents and rituals. Historical and cultural variations in practices around the documents, huppahÂ (canopy), wedding garments, and rituals objects have long encouraged couples to personalize and beautify the ceremony.
The history of Jewish creativity around ritual has been a wonderful way to see the current trends in reclaiming, modifying, and forming new rituals as an inherent part of Jewish tradition and practice. In my understanding, creativity and inclusion lead to an enriched, enlivened, and more beautiful Judaism. In my role as officiant and mâsaderet kiddushinÂ (one who orders wedding ceremony), my hope is that there will be a balance of tradition and creativity. I hope that all couples I work with, especially interfaith couples, will be empowered to make Jewish rituals and practices their own, thus opening the doorway for their engagement in Jewish life on their terms, in a way that is meaningful to them.
This November, congregations and Jewish organizations around the country are celebrating Interfaith Family Month. Some may choose to offer a blessing or do a special program. InterfaithFamily has created some lovely readings andÂ blessings. But I also want to encourage other clergy and Jewish leaders to think about offering something from their heart. One way to do this is to think about the gifts that interfaith couples and families have given you and your community.
And with that in mind, I want to say thank you to the interfaith couples Iâve worked with for their willingness to engage with Judaism. Thank you to the individuals who want to honor and include their non-Jewish partners or family members so that we can create more inclusive rituals and more expansive experiences of Judaism. I want to say thank you to the individuals who want to incorporate rituals from other cultures who have showed me that there are more similarities than there are differences. I am grateful to work for an organization that has supported me to embrace interfaith couples and families and for our partnership with organizations like Ritualwell who enrich the work that I do.
Years ago, a colleague of mine told me that as a rabbi, I should try to make Judaism, âcool,â At the time, I knew I was put off by this comment, but only years later do I fully understand why. What I love about Judaism is that it is generally âuncool.â In fact, it is wonderfully weird. Sometimes it is edgy. Even counter-cultural. I am part of religious life because it is meaningful, not because itâs the hip thing to do on a Friday night.
An article caught my eye recently, entitled, Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church âcool.â The writer, Rachel Held Evans, criticizes flashy, trend-setting techniques to get millennials into churches. âThe trick isnât to make church cool,â she writes, âitâs to keep worship weird.â She goes on to share what most attracts her and other young bloggers to religious life.Â âI do not want to be entertainedâŚI want to be asked to participate in the life of an ancient-future community.â She is intrigued by âthose strange rituals and traditionsâ that have been practiced in her tradition for thousands of years.
Sometimes as a Jewish leader, I feel pressure to make Judaism seem cool. But the fact isâI want to keep Judaism wonderfully weird. Take this season of the High Holidays. My favorite parts of the liturgy and practice at this sacred time of year often appear the strangest, and take some time to get used to. One of the rarest is the practice of kneeling and then putting my face to the ground during a certain prayer during Rosh Hashanah; prostrating myself like a childâs pose in yoga, feeling the ground beneath me and my vulnerability as a human being. I relish this because I want, at that moment, to feel a bit small with a sense of the grandeur of the world outside of me. My family loves the ritual of tashlich. We throw breadcrumbs into a creek to symbolize our shortcomings over the past yearâwith full knowledge that this ritual was borne out of a desire to appease water demons.
When sukkot begins, I shake the lulav: that strange collection of four natural species we bring together inside our little autumn hut (sukkah). Who doesnât feel a little awkward shaking it in all directions? I love this ancient, agricultural ritual for all of its quirkiness. It connects me to the earth. It reminds me how interdependent we are with the natural world, and I become cognizant that the livelihood of others is tied to the whims of the weather more than mine will ever be.
It is not, actually, the endurance of the rituals alone that propels me to keep practicing them. They are relevant to me because they contain kernels of wisdom, and I bring my contemporary consciousness to them as Jews always have. They are not flashy or slick, hip or even always fun. Some are even difficult. But they are authentic.
The famous Rav Kook wrote that, âThe oldÂ becomes new, and theÂ new becomes holy.â That is what an âancient-futureâ community looks like; always looking back to discover the sources of our wisdom while we discern how that tradition continues to inform us in the present day. That doesnât mean that we should keep doing exactly what we always did, or in exactly the same way. Our job is to renew and reconstruct where necessary, and make the ancient come alive in a new generation with contemporary relevance.
Whether Jewish practice is new to you or familiar, whether this is your first High Holiday season or your fiftieth, embrace the quirkiness. Try something new. Donât worry if itâs not all flashy, or if you find that you need to slow down your mind to take it in. Hopefully, the experience will bring introspection, meaning and depth to your life. Above all, find out why we practice the way we do. Ask questions. Most people probably have the same questions you do. Reshape rituals and add your own flavor. As Evans puts it, â[Rituals] donât need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.â Â
My friendâs daughter is dating someone from a different faith and her grandparents are upset. The daughter called me and asked for advice. We talked about how people often participate in religion because of guilt or shame. For todayâs society, guilt or pressure from families no longer works. In America, where everything is marketed so that you âneed it now,â my philosophy is to make sure that the Jewish family is as welcoming, interesting, educational and inviting as possible. The family should be welcoming, not just because the new boyfriend or girlfriend is at the table, but for everyone. If a person has miserable memories associated with the family, they are not going to be inclined to practice Judaism when it is their turn.
If there is a new (or potential) family member at the table, make sure that the newcomer is having a positive and enjoyable experience. The familyâs goal with any guest should be to put on their best version of themselves. In short, every parentâs goal should be to make the new family member fall in love with the familyâits rituals, customs and craziness! Grandparents can tell stories of how important Judaism is to them and why they love it. Keep it positive, appreciative and most important, non-judgmental.
Maybe new family members will understand why the Jewish family has worked hard for so many years to maintain the beauty of Judaism. Maybe itâs the silliness. Maybe the bonding or the joy of special foods. No matter what, make it pleasant. Make it a wonderful memory. And if it gets awkward, just smile and plan to laugh about it the next day. We all have at least one annoying relativeâjust smile because they arenât going to change just because you wish they would.
Talk to your parents and grandparents and tell them to show off a bit. Tell them to keep all interaction inviting. Tell them that you love them and you have so many positive family memories. Tell them you want your new (potential) family member to have these great memories too. For instance: âGrammy and Pops, I love you. I hope that he falls in love with you too. It will be easy since you are so loveable! And please get to know him. Ask him questions so you can learn how wonderful he is.â A positive tone with a little flattery should go a long way toward new wonderful memories.
Good luck and keep us posted! We want to hear about your family experiences, questions and advice.
When I was little, my mom made a huge deal of the Passover afikomen hunt. The prize for finding the broken pieces of matzah throughout the house was the hot toy of the day (I vividly remember the year of the Beanie Baby craze).Â She also created an elaborate Easter egg hiding game in which one rhyming clue (starting on our pillows in the morning) led to another, with a big basket filled with eggs as the grand finale. What is the allure of the hide-and-seek element of both Easter and Passover? Do they have anything in common?
As early as the age of peek-a-boo, hiding and finding is a huge part of our development of object permanence. Dad leaves the room but itâs OK! He still exists and will come back in a minute. Just because we canât see or hear something doesnât mean itâs gone. Then, as we grow, the basic game of hide-and-seek excites us for an amazingly long stretch of years. I have to imagine, as my kids are playing hide-and-seek with me at the park, that the moments when I canât see themâwhile panicky for meâare exhilarating for them. A sweet taste of future independence. Perhaps our spring rituals capture the excitement and expectation of these early forays into mystery and autonomy.
Both Passover and Easter share a theme of rebirth in springtime. For Christianity, Christâs rebirth is symbolized in the egg. On the seder plate we place an egg as a symbol of hope, recalling the Israelitesâ escape from slavery and birth as a free nation. Although in Judaism, the egg isnât hidden, both rituals harken back to celebrations of the bursting forth of life at this season that far predate either religious tradition and are shared by many peoples around the world.
But when did people start hiding Easter eggs? Legend has it that the Protestant Christian reformer, Martin Luther, held egg hunts in which men hid the eggs for the women and children. Some Christians have claimed the egg as a symbol of Christâs tomb, symbolizing his rebirth, and the hunt for eggs was likened to the hunt for Jesus in the tomb. There are images of Mary Magdelene with an egg as well. The Easter bunny didnât enter the picture as the deliverer of those eggs until the 17th century.
The afikomen ritual clearly has very different origins, and there is no evidence that the hide-and-seek rituals are linked. Afikomen means âthat which comes afterâ or âdessertâ in Greek, and the hunt for it is a clever ploy to keep kids engaged in the often lengthy seder until the end. The kidsâ elevated role is in keeping with the entire Passover experience; the holiday ritual is an elaborate scheme to pass the story of enslavement to freedom onto children.
How does it work? Early in the seder, the leader breaks the middle matzah on the table and leaves half of it as âdessertâ to be eaten after the meal. Then after everyone has eaten, the leader cannot close the seder until the dessert matzah is found and eaten. Families enact this in myriad ways, but here are two popular options:
Either way, the ritual empowers children. Itâs always fun to put one over on your parents. But the kids also learn that while they often feel less important than adults, at this moment they are powerful!
What about bringing these overlapping spring rituals together in an interfaith home? This is a matter for each family to decide. But some might find it comforting to know that egg painting in springtime is a tradition older than either Judaism or Christianity and it celebrates rebirth, hope, life and fertility. In fact, some Israelis even remember growing up decorating eggs for Passover, and might find it surprising that American Jews donât generally approve of it on the grounds that in the United States, it is associated with Christianity. There are important historical reasons why some customs have become considered off limits in order for Jews to retain their particular status as separate from the dominant culture around them. But if you end up with a colored egg on your seder plate, you are far from alone. It is common enough that a great guidebook for grandparents of interfaith grandchildren is called, Thereâs an Easter Egg on Your Seder Plate.
How will you celebrate this year? Do spring traditions overlap or collide in your home? When planning a seder or Easter rituals, think about what you want to convey through the games and symbols you share. Think back with your partner or other family members about the rituals you each grew up with around the spring holidays and share what was meaningfulâor confusingâabout them. Articulate what you need out of the experience to feel personally and spiritually fulfilled. Together, explore the messages you hope your kids will take away from this season.