This article was published in the Spring 2019 Issue of Humanistic Judaism Magazine. It was written by Richard D. Logan, past president of Or Emet and the SHJ board, and Rabbi Jeremy Kridel, rabbi of Machar, The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
When I was young, rituals and ceremonies, like high school graduation, seemed like a royal waste of time— and it didn’t help that the school band was awful! Many of my peers later felt the same about college graduation. (All the ceremonies involved were secular.)
But majoring in anthropology and studying how ceremonies and rituals bring people together and help provide meaning began to change my views. Teaching at the University of Nairobi right after graduate school and researching traditional Kenyan village life for two years cemented the change. The Maasai pastoral-herding society, for example, is replete with ceremonies and rituals. Many mark life transitions, making them the most meaningful and transformative experiences in the Maasais’ lives. Ritual and ceremony strengthen the Maasais’ appreciation of their culture and affirm that they have a solid place in it. Consequently, I can attest that Maasai “know who they are” and don’t question their identity to the extent we often see here.
Maasai males go through a series of four initiations as they transition through the major stages of life:
- They become Junior Warriors at puberty, which includes undergoing the ritual of circumcision. Going through this ordeal with their contemporaries shows they have the strength to be adults, and this major ceremonial occasion also forever binds them as “brothers” in their age set.
- Several years later, there is a massive ceremony where hundreds of Junior Warriors from all around Maasai-land are initiated together into Senior Warriorhood in the eunoto ceremony, whereby they become the primary protectors of the community.
- Some years later, the same age set is initiated into Junior Elderhood, when they become administrators of the decisions of senior leaders.
- Finally, with Senior Elderhood, the age mates are initiated into leadership, the Council of Elders.
Maasai women traditionally also go through rites of passage, including female genital cutting at puberty. But the Maasai are a patriarchal society, and cross-cultural studies demonstrate that cultures tend to have more, and more elaborate, ceremonies to mark the life transitions for the gender destined for leadership. Thus, the two most ceremonialized transitions for Maasai women are puberty and marriage. In societies where women are the prime authority figures, however, they must pass more ritual “tests” than most men to prove their worth. Examples include the matriarchal Navajos’ kinaalda puberty ceremony, where girls are subjected to trials of isolation, deprivation, and the stress of a long-distance solitary run; and, later in life, ceremonies that mark their attaining leadership status. (I know a lot more about the Maasai than the Navajo. I was honored by being made an honorary Senior Maasai Elder in 1993.)
Even though the terms ceremony and ritual themselves overlap and are often used interchangeably, we can suggest this distinction:
Ceremony is a series of acts performed on a formal religious or public occasion, often one celebrating a particular group event or anniversary, e.g., “A rabbi performed the wedding ceremony.”
Ritual often refers to a smaller, more private event. Frequently ceremonies (e.g., weddings) have ritual components (exchanging rings, vows).
For anthropologists, ritual and ceremony are “an inevitable component of culture” (Carrico 2019). They are more dramatized instances of the recurring “patterning” of group behavior that is culture. In ceremonies and rituals, people engage with their culture as something more real to them than on most other occasions, when culture is literally the ordinary routines of their daily lives. Planned ceremonies, and rituals, originate in, flow from, and manifest the group and its culture. Rituals and ceremonies make culture real because they stand out as “figure” against the background of daily life. Take the small-town parade ceremony: It is nothing more than people you know and familiar vehicles moving in order down the street, but since it is done with music and a uniformed band in a group pattern, the community affirms itself as a “real” entity. Because they so powerfully display patterning, ritual and ceremony came to be placed “…. at the center of the development of anthropological thought” (Carrico 2019).
Interestingly, participants often give less attention to the smaller ritual components of a ceremony than they do to the ceremonies themselves. Ceremonies require more logistics and planning than their ritual components do. For example, the rituals inside weddings—exchange of rings, vows, the kiss, etc.— are often simply treated as givens. Similarly, the ceremony of Thanksgiving includes the rituals of giving thanks, carving the turkey, etc.; the Mardi Gras celebration includes the ritual of handing out beads; initiation ceremonies may include the ritual of circumcision or other painful ordeals; a graduation ceremony includes the ritual of moving the tassel of your cap; and a kids’ pick-up baseball game begins with the ritual of choosing up sides by tossing the bat—a ritual, like so many others, ordained back in the mists of time, and now a given in the culture of childhood.
Ritual is, in other words, “not entirely encoded [i.e., thought about] by the performers” (Rappaport 1999, 48). In other words, individuals follow patterns set before their time. This feature of ritual reflects that culture often works in hidden ways and leads us to do many things, like saying “hello” or shaking hands, in certain ways without thinking much about how we do them.
Moreover, “[ritual is] an especially dramatic attempt to bring some particular part of life firmly and definitely into orderly control” (Moore and Myerhoff 1977, 3). Think of the many rituals in a funeral as ways of working through and finding reassurance that meaning—and culture—still remain after the dislocation of loss, rituals of polite interaction as ways of controlling aggression, or wedding and marriage as ways of regulating sexuality. Rituals help us deal with life events and comfort us with the knowledge that order endures.
Ritual and ceremony also:
- Give occasion to a life or group event: they are signs that something matters to the group and individuals involved;
- Have a social integration function: everyone is together doing the same thing in the same way at the same time. As my congregation, Or Emet’s Shabbat service booklet says: “They bind us together”;
- Are often dramatized reminders of who a people are. This is especially significant if there is celebration of a group’s history. Historical memory, peoplehood, community, identity, honoring core values, and social integration, are prime features of many Jewish rituals and ceremonies—even when the stated purpose may be religious;
- Affirm that the group is real: if done well, ritual and ceremony also evoke admiration, respect, and even loyalty. Sometimes they even evoke awe and make both observers and participants experience the event as especially meaningful. Awe and meaning can be hard to distinguish from “spiritual.”
But here is the rub: it can be hard for secular organizations to do ritual and ceremony well. This is especially true for organizations that are newer, small and voluntary, or that eschew forms that might look “too religious.” As a counterpoint: Jewish secular organizations borrowed much from “traditional” religious ceremonies and rituals that were actually centered largely on cultural themes like peoplehood, Jewish identity, etc., in the first place. Further, Humanistic Judaism has shown that these can be modified into humanistic observances that remain meaningful.
A key question, then, is this: can we learn from groups that do ritual and ceremony well, and if so, what can we learn?
First, we know that religious organizations— churches, synagogues, mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, etc.—all do rituals and ceremonies well, with pomp, precision, solemnity, beauty (both costuming and music), and in ways that provide support, comfort, and a sense of meaning. Because they provide so much, ceremonies and rituals clearly play a role in religions’ staying power.
But where do we find secular groups that do ritual and ceremony well?
The immense popularity of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace shows that monarchies often do ritual and ceremony very well. The ceremonies and rituals of monarchies are colorful, precise, and done with pomp and solemnity, so much so that it is hard not to see the enterprise as highly meaningful. One reason for doing ceremony well is that it makes the monarchy stand out as figure against the background of everyday life in the United Kingdom—and by extension, in the United States too! They also validate a monarchy’s status above its subjects and are a large part of its staying power.
Then there is, perhaps surprisingly, the urban gang, where ceremonies and myriad specific rituals are central features, including initiation (being beaten or sexed in, committing one’s first crime, etc.), later initiation to ever higher statuses, loyalty oaths, and an elaborate array of components of gang culture (signs, insignia, colors, dress, “tagging”, codes of conduct, etc.). Gang funeral ceremonies can rival the elaborate funerals of great Viking war heroes. Many of the ritual components are givens and help make gang life so compelling, fulfilling, and, yes, meaningful—and, again, real as a culture and as charismatic figure against a usually desultory background.
American national celebrations, usually secular, like Independence Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, etc., and other large public events that involve no national holidays, like sporting events, all must be given strong ceremonial marking to underline that each is an occasion. To ceremonialize these events, we often turn to our one national secular organization that does ritual and ceremony well—the military. A national military honor guard often presents the symbols of the nation— the “colors”—thus marking the occasion while also reminding people of the “realness” of the institution of the nation. Militaries do rituals and ceremonies well for all the same reasons religions, monarchies and gangs do—to be organically real to their members and to society, and also to engender commitment.
Even though I have sung the praises of ritual and ceremony, they can be overdone. We surely do not want to emulate monarchies, the military, or gangs, other than to realize that they show that ritual and ceremony really do matter, even for secular groups. We do not favor indoctrination or want to strengthen the staying power of those who should not have it. It is also true that, even with only good intentions, groups who are ethical and moral can still engage in too much ritual and ceremony—or maybe too little.
My hope is that ritual and ceremony matter to Humanistic Judaism because they do several good things for us: they help make our communities and movement real, they help us stand out against the background of members’ daily lives, and they can help us stand out to others. I would especially hold up our B Mitzvahs to highlight another important point: we generally pull these off with simple elegance compared to more traditional forms. Our B Mitzvah ceremonies have enough familiar ceremonial form and ritual content to be experienced as truly Jewish, but we take great care not to present ceremony and ritual for their own sake. We want the ceremony and ritual to affirm the youth, not for the youth to be a vehicle for the rites. In keeping with this, the ritual and ceremony must be spare enough to let the youth shine through.
One of the key pieces that makes our B Mitzvah ceremonies so compelling as a model is part of what makes Secular Humanistic Judaism so distinct: changing the liturgy to match what we believe and the goals of the ceremony. A B Mitzvah celebration in many congregations outside our movement often makes the youth’s growing maturity somewhat secondary to the ceremony by embedding the B Mitzvah rituals within a “regular” liturgy. The student may read from the Torah or read a haftarah, and may help lead services, and those achievements are recognized. But if the ceremony is on a Shabbat morning, the liturgy is largely the same as if there were no B Mitzvah being celebrated at all. The youth whose B Mitzvah is being celebrated is in some respects a drop-in: the youth is recognized, but the liturgy is not reworked to recognize how momentous the occasion truly is.
Compare this with how B Mitzvah ceremonies are conducted in different Humanistic Jewish communities. At our founding congregation, the Birmingham Temple, B Mitzvah ceremonies occur on Shabbat, and the holiday is recognized. Yet the bulk of the liturgy is not focused on Shabbat: it is focused on what it means for a youth to recognize and embrace maturation and responsibility, and showcases the individual youth’s work on projects and service work as demonstrating growth. At Machar, our movement’s congregation in Washington, D.C., group B Mitzvah ceremonies are conducted. Family and the youths’ accomplishments receive pride of place: Shabbat liturgy is kept to a minimum, family and friends recognize the B Mitzvah students’ growth, and the students deliver presentations or performances on topics connected to Secular Humanistic Judaism. Each family tailors their student’s portion of the ceremony to the student’s and the family’s interests and emotions by choosing music and readings that speak for that family.
Throughout Secular Humanistic Judaism, our communities strive to keep formal B Mitzvah ritual and ceremony from being centerpieces of these occasions: to ensure that the character and accomplishments of the youth shine through. These features of our approach to B Mitzvah are a strength we should carry on, and they provide a model to build on.
By building ceremonies around rituals and liturgy that focus squarely on the occasion being celebrated, we can embrace the challenge of being a secular organization that does ritual and ceremony well, so that we will stand out as figure and have staying power—but not for control, or for creating commitment for its own sake. And we can refine these forms collectively so that they reflect the moderation of group consensus. Indeed, groups have always worked together to make ceremony and ritual important parts of their cultures; we are no exception.
So, there is a broad lesson: for ritual and ceremony to be done well, quality can matter more than quantity, simple elegance more than elaboration. A few simpler songs done well can be more meaningful, more moving, and more “spiritual” than more songs done less well. And sometimes the simplest ritual can be the most meaningful and most moving, like the Navajo girl simply running alone like the wind over the desert as the primary test in her kinaalda rite of passage, or a group singing together and becoming— literally, and instantly—the voice of the organically real community. The simple reverent lighting of a candle in loved ones’ memories can say “the light of their life is still with us” more movingly than words. And it is hard not to be reverentially quiet during a candle lighting; it can evoke a hushed “spiritual” reverence like no other ritual event in a ceremony.
I mention simple elegance because one of the tensions in SHJ communities is between those who want more educational or other cultural programming time and those who want more ceremony. Elegant simplicity that is both moving and not overbearing might be common ground where these two groups can meet, and on which to build ritual and ceremony that work well for us—not to mention that simplicity is easier to pull off.
Ritual and ceremony already live in our communities alongside our stimulating programs, social action, and education. Our commitments to social justice, reason, and evidence-based thinking help us keep our ceremony and ritual in perspective—from being either clumsy or overly elaborated—as a source of meaning and purpose in themselves. They affirm who we are, and we must be committed to using ceremony and ritual only in ways that further affirm and support what we stand for.
- Carrico, Kevin. 2019. “Ritual.” Cultural Anthropology. Accessed February 25. https://culanth.org/curated_ collections/4-ritual.
- Moore, Sally F. and Barbara G. Myerhoff (Eds.). 1977. Secular Ritual. Assen: Van Gorcum.
- Rappaport, Roy. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
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