I love ritual, and am sometimes conflicted about it, as well. The artist part of me wonders if she's being lazy and not truly creative when doing something already done many times before; the rest of me, especially the religious part, finds comfort in predictability and the meditative state to which it often leads. Which can be fertile ground for new and creative ideas (satisfying that other part, and making chanting Torah and leading services a lot of fun). For these reasons, as well as my past wrestling with ideas about detail, I really appreciated this commentary on Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, by Professor Arnold Eisen, Chancellor-elect of JTS. An excerpt (the whole thing is here):
That is the other feature of ritual I have appreciated more and more with age. It is perhaps hard to grasp until one has lived long enough to fail more than once at something truly important — and to fail in ways not easily made right. I refer to the immense advantage that rituals have over life: if we work hard enough, we can get them right. Master the technique of that Bach invention on the piano, learn the lines of that Ibsen play, fill their performance with genuine and proper emotion, and you have a chance of getting them right, really right, in a way rarely achieved in the ethical realms of parenting or friendship or the professions. Focus on kiddush for the sixty seconds it takes to recite the blessing Friday night, pay attention to the meaning of what you are about, and the sense of rightness is yours.
Ritual has made it so. It has helped us to draw near to holiness. Schooled in the discipline of getting things right, we do a better job of carrying it over into the ethical realm, where getting things right is so much harder. And, after years of living happily amid the nitty-gritty details of daily life, knowing that the glory lies not in moments of peak experience or high drama but in sending the kids off to school dressed and fed, paying off the mortgage, and recalling what made the gray hairs worthwhile — after all that, one is grateful for Leviticus’ immersion in the detail of ritual. For anything less would be inadequate to life, which as we know is always lived in the details. That is where the devil is, as the saying goes. Unless God is too, unless our ritual is, there is no chance for us to attain holiness in this life.
I'm a huge ritual fan as well- it's a much needed concept in my life, especially this last year or so.
Rituals do allow us opportunities to carve that path towards holiness- and if we focus on the path, then we most certainly will get there!
My feeling about ritual is that each time I perform a ritual of my faith, I give honor to those who have died for it, and for my right to practice these rituals. By honoring these things we keep the thread of faith alive through time, unbroken.
There is certainly a balance to be had between form and content..and form without content is empty - but to hold the content within the ritual -- ahhhh, generations gone before and yet to come smile in thankfulness.
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