Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reinventing Rituals: Memorializing our Soldiers and Loved Ones

When we think about rituals, we often think about traditions that have been handed down over generations. However, this isn’t entirely true. All rituals were at some point brand-new and have caught on because they have brought meaning into the lives of those looking for a concrete way to mark the passage of time or an event in their lives.

There are common rituals in Judaism that we observe at lifecycle moments such as a bris (welcoming a male baby into the Jewish covenant), bar mitzvah (entering Jewish adulthood), wedding, and death. And then there are ceremonies that have developed over time. Many liberal movements began to incorporate similar ceremonies for women such as a brit bat (Hebrew naming ceremony) or a bat mitzvah. More recently, we’ve begun to see ceremonies which mark different challenges in our lives such as healing services or prayers for a new home.

As our religion evolves with our society we can question where there are moments in our lives that we can turn to ritual to find comfort in an occasion where we mourn or celebrate. Was there ever a moment in your life that you wished you knew what to do to either reflect or pray for what was happening? Those are times when a ritual may have been helpful. Rituals can act as something tangible to hold onto, like ritual objects, or serve as a way to come together around communal prayer in order to bring peace and significance to a certain moment.

As part of a new series on the Pursue blog, I will be examining the reinvention of rituals in our lives. How do we as young Jews either embrace traditions and/or start our own? Whether buying a new car, shifting into a new job, hearing of a natural disaster or experiencing a miscarriage, there are moments in our lives where we may not know where to turn and how to pray. For these times we can create meaningful rituals for ourselves which incorporate our own practices of Judaism with the reinvention of rituals.

Ritual #1: In honor of Memorial Day let’s examine how we honor and memorialize those we have lost in our lives, both the known members of our own communities and the unknown members of our global community. Judaism has several rituals when it comes to honoring the dead. We may choose to name a new child after those we have lost, or purchase a book plate, plaque, or seat in a synagogue we belong to. Those are all tangible items through which we can show our appreciation and memory for the lost individual in our lives. For an ongoing ritual, many people observe a Yartzeit or annual anniversary of the death by lighting a memorial candle and saying Kaddish in synagogue to show that we continue to be in mourning regardless of how much time has passed since our loss.

Memorial Day is often regarded as the start of summer rather than a meaningful national holiday. On a day where we rejoice in the extra day off from school or work and bask in the outdoors and at barbecues, how do we reflect on all of those who gave their lives for our country? How do we “memorialize” them? Both personally and communally we have losses in our lives that are greater than we realize and greater than the rituals we currently maintain for them.

I often find the easiest way to reinvent a ritual is to break it down first in order to discover what it is I’m marking. This way the ritual I create can be most meaningful to me for the particular occasion I’m observing. On a personal level, this July I will lead the graveside service for my uncle’s unveiling (one year Yartzeit) and will have to discover what it is that is meaningful to say for my particular family. On a communal level, this week I will reflect on the lives lost by American soldiers engaged in wars overseas and what I pray for their future.

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu/Voices of Our Lives in Brooklyn led a workshop for CBST’s (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah) Transforming Beitecha Conference last month in which we discussed developing Jewish rituals. She taught the group a good technique to use to determine if rituals still apply to the needs of today’s Jews. You can use a formula to ask questions of what the ritual is about and then determine who it is for and who is being left out. This way when you look to re-invent a ritual you will have a clearer understanding of the initial goals.

Let’s break down Yartzeit and its meaning in our lives (you can do this for yourself with whatever ritual you want to break down):

Case #1
Yartzeit is defined as: annual memorial for loss of a loved one
Who: the mourner observes a day of memory for the deceased
What: a symbolic candle is lit
Where: at home or in synagogue Kaddish is recited three times
When: on the Hebrew date of death annually
Why: to remember a loved one
How: alone or communally candle is lit and prayers are said

Then take a moment to decide what your personal goal in observing a ritual may be, since this may decide how you observe the ritual. When I observe Yartzeits in my life I like to spend the day remembering what that person brought into my life and the positive memories that I still have of them. I also like to have tangible objects like pictures or clothing that remind me of them close by so I can find comfort in their continued presence in my life.

Does Memorial Day have a Jewish connection in your life? Why do we celebrate Memorial Day? What are rituals we can create to better understand our link as Jews and as Americans to this historic day of honor and memory?

This Memorial Day I invite you as American Jews to think about how those within your own community have honored our country. Maybe your father, grandfather, great-grandfather served in either World War II, Vietnam, or the Korean War. Maybe you know someone who is serving now, a friend or peer. What does this connection to people who fight for America mean to you? Whether they are close to you or not, whether you believe in our current wars or not, what does it mean to have people give their lives for your safety? And how do you show your appreciation and honor those who put their lives at risk by protecting and acting for a more just world? This year I will reach out to my peers who I know have served and express my gratitude as I continue to pray for peace. For me, ritual is finding meaning in and expressing my gratitude for the things I have and the people in my life. Other goals may be to read about or share stories with those who have fought as American soldiers or to attend an event that honors the men and women who fight today.

What actions will you take? And how will you remember those whom you personally have lost and whom our country has lost this year?

You can find this series on "Reinventing Rituals" cross-posted at Pursue:

Friday, May 13, 2011

What it means to Leave a Legacy: Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

In our lives:

This past week we have seen a “modern” example of sacrifice upon hearing the news of American troops killing Osama Bin Laden. All week I reflected on what Osama’s life meant and the legacy he would be remembered by. Reading countless news articles caused me to question, was Osama happy? And, although the US spent a decade hunting him, did our country do the right thing by killing him? These are not easy questions, and there may not be easy answers.

What Osama has in common with every other living person is the search for meaning in his life. This Shabbat I read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for a Life That Matters.” Kushner speaks of those who search for personal success as often finding themselves lonely. Osama was certainly successful in accomplishing his goals, but did this render him happy? I find myself feeling empathetic towards a man who couldn’t see past his own hatred and caused one of the most tragic events in US history. Kushner says of infamous biblical character Cain’s selfishness, “ He becomes a wanderer on the face of the earth, with no place to call home, with no community to support or comfort him. The original looking-out-for-number-one man, like all of his descendants, is condemned to spend all of his days unconnected.” (p.63) I can only imagine life for Osama this past decade was isolating, as he became the world’s most hated man due to his terrorizing actions.


Conversely, I turn to history in search of what leaving a positive legacy might look like. This month is Jewish American Heritage Month. In order to honor the women who have been influential in Jewish History the Jewish Women’s Archive has created an encyclopedia of Jewish Women. As part of a larger education initiative, JWA has invited influential Jewish Tweeters to promote knowledge, and share what they learn about these women through twitter and other social media. When I read about the lives these women have touched and the work they have accomplished it makes me proud to have these leaders in the Jewish community. It shows me as a society how far we have come in our recognition of Jewish Women’s influence in our culture, and celebrating their accomplishments in their own fields. It appears to me that these women achieved both success and happiness by following their passions as Kushner suggests is the answer to finding the life that matters. See what’s being said on twitter: #jwapedia.

This week the torah says....

I turn to Parshat Emor to provide insight for what it means to leave a legacy as it speaks about both sacrifice, and honoring the dead. The torah talks about whom we honor and how we do so. Priests or Kohanim are particularly guarded from being in the presence of death as they are seen as holier than others. This is a continuation of Parshat Kedoshim in a series of explanations of what Jews do to maintain holiness and how we honor G-d.

We learn about retribution for blasphemy, and for murder. “ if anyone kills any human being, that person shall be put to death. One who kills a best shall make restitution for it: life for life. if anyone maims another (person): what was done shall be done in return—fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. [….] but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I adonai am you G-d.” (Leviticus 24:17-22). Parshat Emor helps me come to terms with how to maintain holiness in our society may still be by having to eliminate those who have caused undue harm upon the innocent. I hope America regains it’s sense of justice in Osama’s death. However, even more importantly I hope that we continue to celebrate those who do achieve great accomplishments in their lives to further our society and our Jewish culture. Let us rejoice in a world where women are recognized for their contributions and where we are thankful for the gifts that we do have and let us not waste any more time on what seemed to be a necessary sacrifice for our country’s safety.