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Friday, December 01, 2006
Jewish Ritual: A Brief Introduction for Christians
By Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and Rabbi Daniel Judson

A Response Paper
Jewish Ritual: A Brief Introduction for Christians successfully communicates the fundamental components of Jewish ritual and their meanings in a clear, inspiring and informative way, providing helpful insight into traditions and interpretations across the centuries and the Jewish theological spectrum. The only major weakness, in my opinion, is the rather superficial treatment of Christian parallels; the major portions of text were so stimulating that I was able to make meaningful connections independently, rendering the mild weakness insignificant. The authors succeed in establishing a voice that is objective, yet personal, interesting and simultaneously invitational. It even seemed that a space came into being as a result of the relationship I developed with the text, so that the book assignment became for me a Sabbath.

Sabbath involves both a withdrawing from the humdrum and whir of ordinary preoccupation and relishing sacred moments of time set apart from work and the pressures of the outside world, where food, candles, wine and prayer waft together as people decompress and reconnect with the rhythm of God, ourselves and those we love. Authors Olitzy and Judson write, “By limiting what you are permitted to do, traditional Shabbat restrictions force you to give up the illusion of ‘control’ over your life. Instead, you strip down to life’s essentials by getting together with others to eat and talk and celebrate just being alive.” Jewish traditional tells us that two candles are to be lit on the Sabbath. It is usually a woman who lights the candles, which represent the dual, slightly different reiterations of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Bible. We are told in Exodus to "Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy." Deuteronomy instructs us to "guard the Sabbath." Rabbis Kerry M Olitzky and Daniel Judson write that everything comes in twos on the Sabbath: Two loaves of Challah bread, two angels to escort us home the Sabbath evening, two candles, and in some interpretations, two lovers enraptured in the "double mitsva" of sex on Shabbat. Olitzky and Judson communicate that on Shabbot, two is really about becoming One. "The Rabbis even say that the two times where the Ten Commandments appear in the Bible, God actually spoke them at the exact same time, somehow, in the mystery that is the Oneness of God...Shamor vezakhor bediboor echad, God utterered the words guard and remember as one word." And according to the most special text of Jewish Mysticism, The Zohar, "just as the male and female aspects of the Divine unite above, so they also unite below in the mystery of the Oneness.”

The paradox of two becoming one is made especially blatant when one examines the clearly delineated lines drawn in Jewish tradition between the holy and the ordinary, the sacred and the profane, not only in the practice of Shabbot, but in the entirety of Jewish practice. At first, this insistence on the separation of things into categories of holy and unholy seems like an exercise in stark duality, but upon closer inspection it becomes clear that the goal of naming certain times, objects and ways of conducting life holy, or “set apart,” is actually a means to the end of imbuing all life with sacredness and meaning. The authors quote Abraham Joshua Heschel as saying, “perhaps the essential message of Judaism is that in doing the finite, we can perceive the infinite. Even the food-related laws called Kushrut (or kosher) are guidelines designed to demonstrate compassion toward animals by minimizing their suffering when slaughtered, and encouraging the ideal of a vegetarian diet, and those reverence for all of life as sacred, Tangible prayer rituals, such as putting on tefillin (prayer boxes,) wrapping the tallit (prayer shaw,) are practices intended to remind the practitioner of God’s presence and God’s ways for us to flourish rightly on earth. The fact that rituals are consistent and prescribed is intended to foster a harmonious rhythm within the individual, in the context of community, whereby an awareness and awe is cultivated in relationship to God and God’s creation. I am reminded of the Christian tradition of spiritual disciplines, where the goal is not legalism, but rather a rhythm of set-apart contemplation that allows one time to “be still and know that He is God,” and to allow the Holy Spirit to gestate the life of Christ within us, bringing us to maturity that will overflow naturally into our daily, ordinary lives. I am convicted that sometimes my rebellion against tradition costs me in riches of ritual. And I long to reintegrate ritual without binding legalism, and yet I sense that ritual without commitment becomes, “something I will do someday when the children are grown, when I’ve completed my education, when my Christmas packages and thank you notes are safely in the mail,” and in the process, I may become like the would-be wedding guests at Jesus’ great banquet who missed the celebration because they lacked the discipline to say, “no” to daily life’s constant and insistent calls – even for an evening.

Intellectually, the most compelling part of Jewish Ritual was its treatment of scripture, in the chapter titled, ‘Studying the Torah. I like the opening quote from Rabbi Jakob J. Petuchowski: “Jews study Torah the way a person reads a love letter, eager to squeeze the last drop of meaning from every word. Lovestruck recipients of letters from their beloved ruminate over why specific words were chosen and not others.’ I find here a savory connection to Christian devotional practices, such as Lectio Divina, where specific scriptures the focus of meditation in which the words are permitted to gestate under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Most striking however, is the manner in which interpretive disagreement is welcome, normal and consciously integrated into the Jewish tradition, both historical and modern. As Olitzky and Judson put it, “One of the most striking aspects of Jewish Bible study is the absence of any single authoritative interpretation.” And again, “The Rabbis say that the Torah has seventy faces, meaning that there are at least seventy different interpretations for every letter of the Torah.” In particular, I find great relevancy in the Jewish approach to appropriating scripture spiritually, to one’s own life: “The purpose of studying the bible is not just to better understand the bible, but to better understand our own lives.” The authors continue to describe an approach to scripture that invites the faithful to find themselves in the biblical narratives. Questions are welcome, and often mark the beginning of biblical engagement. I find myself drawn to this way of relating to the bible, and observe that while the Jewish practice is quite old, it is certainly relevant to postmodern people searching for an authentic way to connect with the scriptures passed down through generations.

I find it noteworthy that Judaism is at once quite tolerant of theological diversity, yet persistently committed to carrying on certain uniformities in the practice of rituals and the manner of coming together as a community. Prayer, for example, takes place primarily in the context of a communal gathering, though a service does not have to be held in a special place to be considered valid.. Olitzky and Judson go so far as to say, “If you want to pray Jewishly, you must be part of a community.” Some prayer require a certain quorum, or “minyan” to gather in one place for the service to proceed. Chanting the Torah calls for a quorum of ten, for example. According to the authors, one purpose of a minyan is to provide a safe context for letting go of the ego and turning deeply inward – without losing oneself in that inwardness.
Perhaps it is this very community accountability and profound commitment to ritual which enables theological diversity to thrive without threat to the coherence of the group’s faith. Faith is a dialogue, like a dance among family, while the embrace of communal ritual creates the religious glue which binds the family together.

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posted by Jemila Kwon at 7:22 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 12/02/2006 09:25:00 PM, Blogger lydia

    Just wanted to let you know that I'm not ignoring this post - weekends are just a busier time for me.

    I'll try to have a comment thought out by monday.

  • At 12/04/2006 06:07:00 PM, Blogger Amy


    Very interesting review. The book seems fascinating and thought-provoking. The thought process regarding the purpose of the Sabbath, the way the Jewsh scholars are open to different interpretations of the text make this a book I'm going to have to pick up.

    Thanks for doing this review.

  • At 12/04/2006 06:43:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    If you read the book, I'd be very interested in your thoughts :)

  • At 12/06/2006 03:24:00 PM, Blogger lydia

    Let's pretend it's still Monday. ;)

    I find it noteworthy that Judaism is at once quite tolerant of theological diversity, yet persistently committed to carrying on certain uniformities in the practice of rituals and the manner of coming together as a community.

    Upon rereading it this is a sentence that really jumped out at me.

    Intellectually I know that other faiths have as many different strands of interpretation as we do, I just hadn't given much thought to how the differences between and among different groups is handled in other faiths.

    Very interesting stuff.

  • At 12/06/2006 04:41:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    Yes, I wondered if there might be a lesson here for the Emerging conversation -- that perhaps as we find rituals, both old and new that can sustain and bind together our families and communities, it will both help us remain theologically open and spiritually/Christianly committed. It sort of ties in with the idea of orthopraxy taking (at least in some sense) preeminence over orthodoxy.

  • At 12/07/2006 06:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

    Look out - here comes grumpy medium guy again...

    I think the sentence that Lydia highlighted from Jemila's text pretty much is the key to not boxing in anyone, regardless of their particular faith, and to not make grandiose universal statements about followers of a given faith, but to remember that each of us is as unique as our DNA recombinatorix.


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