Finding the Sacred Rituals of Jewish Peoplehood

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 8 – Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century – What Should We Do Differently? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Bill Robinson

Simply stated, Jewish Peoplehood seeks to (re)establish a sense of identity that privileges my connection to other Jews over non-Jews, within the context of our post-modern world. I assert that our biggest challenge to succeeding is a mistaken focus on education instead of religion. In most writings and conversations on Jewish Peoplehood, we tend to avoid religion or allude to it (i.e., the covenant) without providing any serious content. In some cases, an aspirational desire even seems to exist to create a sense of common identity without religion. Yet, as any student of Emile Durkheim would know, people’s identity cannot be sustained across the generations without sacred rituals that provide regular and spontaneous moments (separated from mundane time and space) that remind us and signify for us our membership in a people with a holy purpose.

Please note that in saying this I am not asserting that the Jewish people are different than other peoples. To the contrary, it is because we are like all peoples that we need communal rituals to signify and remind us of our membership in a group and the salience of obligations that come with that membership. Durkheim showed that the religious worship of a deity is really the worship of the community; through religious ritual we assure the continuity of our people. This understanding has been picked up by Jewish scholars, notably Mordecai Kaplan and Arnie Eisen. But, it seems to have been neglected in Jewish Peoplehood debates where it is assumed that religion is only one possible form of peoplehood.

If we look back to history, we recall that the Jewish people were first formed from the bringing together of the 12 tribes during the early times of the Kings. Yet, members of these tribes concretely discovered their sense of peoplehood through the pilgrimage rituals of the Temple and the priesthood. This is where – three times a year – the people came together to worship their God “who took them out of Egypt and made them into a nation.” The Jewish People, like all nations, is an historically constructed entity (that of course claims eternal naturalness), which requires continual ritual maintenance over the generations.

When the Temple fell, Rabbinic Judaism offered in place of the pilgrimage festivals and the Temple, the primacy of the synagogue, prayer and Shabbat. While these rituals lacked the visceral power of the whole nation coming with their sacrifices to the Temple, it made some of this up in the frequency of repetition. Moreover, the concept of the Shechinah as God’s presence in exile, created a new spiritual space for Jews to recognize and honor themselves as an exiled people through religious worship of their God – perfect Durkheim.

During this time, the sense of belonging to a Jewish people waxed and waned. It was kept alive, among other ways, by remembrance of common history and destiny through prayer, and restrictive religious laws detailing who is a Jew and how one can become a Jew. We also saw occasionally the rise of quasi-mystical notions of a Jewish soul that was different (and better) than the goyim.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg describes this movement from Biblical to Rabbinic Judaism. During the Biblical period, the divine was concentrated in the Temple (and before that the traveling Ark). During the Rabbinic period, the divine presence was spread out as a greater number of spaces (the synagogues) and more frequent times (Shabbat) took on increased sacredness. This process, Greenberg refers to as secularization, and he argues that we are now transitioning to a third era in Jewish history, as this secularization process leaps forward.

As Jews are leaving the synagogue, they are not entirely leaving God. Our experience of the divine is potentially becoming even less intense, yet the divine is now being found everywhere. Jews are worshipping in nature and building homes from those in need is being seen as a sacred act. We may question the ultimate primacy of the ancient Jewish texts, yet we are finding sacredness in more and more places from Buddhist texts to contemporary Jewish writing.

Notably, much of this secular trend flows against a sense of Jewish Peoplehood, especially when Jewish rituals are mash-ups of the traditionally Jewish and non-Jewish and “doing Jewish” is done (preferentially) with non-Jews. Yet, 3rd era rituals of Jewish have already been emerging for decades.

We have seen the creation and observance of sacred rituals of Jewish Peoplehood that moves us every spring across a narrative plot in time from Yom Hashoah to Yom Hazikaron, Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. This same narrative arc is played out in Birthright Israel trips as the youth give obeisance to our recent time in captivity at Yad Vashem (and other places) and then experience our contemporary exodus into the wilderness of Israel that was a desert until we came and built a holy land through agriculture and science.

For a time in the 1970’s, we experienced a resurgence of Jewish Peoplehood through the Soviet Jewry movement. And, this was accompanied by specific rituals. My parents were very involved through their synagogue and I remember wearing bracelets and necklaces with the names of Soviet Jewish refuseniks that signified for me my attachment to these unknown members of my People.

These sacred rituals of time and space are the building blocks of Jewish Peoplehood identity. Yet, we need more of them, and we need rituals that are both less Israel-centric and take place where Jews are doing Jewish everyday. As Jewish life moves beyond the synagogue to public space and even online, how will they discover their sense of being part of the Jewish People?

There is not one answer to this and intentionally crafting sacred ritual is usually doomed from the start. But, we can look to areas of emergence. Where might this organically be happening already? Here, I suggest we look toward the recent explosion of creativity that has launched innovative ways of being Jewish.

For instance, Hazon has been running a very popular Jewish bike ride open to everyone and several organizations have been bringing young Jews on service trips often to help non-Jews. What rituals are springing up among these groups? How are traditional prayers and rites being refashioned? Does the recent rise of families building their own sukkah and communal sukkah hops hold the seeds of a powerful ritual that affirms a sense of Jewish Peoplehood, which is literally and figuratively open to non-Jewish members of our families and community? Jews are connecting more and more with other Jews across geographic boundaries through the internet. When these young Jews gather online for “Jewish” discussions, in what ways may they be reflectively signifying these discussions as Jewish?

The challenge of Jewish Peoplehood is to (re)discover our shared bonds and common purpose as Jews in this emerging 3rd era of Jewish history. This has less to do with education (though it has an important role) and more to do with embracing sacred ritual. I am not suggesting a return to the religious rites of traditional Judaism, but rather to find and spread those more secularized sacred rituals that are already emerging organically outside the Rabbinic spaces and times of Jewish life.

Bill Robinson, PhD, is the Chief Strategy Officer of The Jewish Education Project.

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 8 – Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century – What Should We Do Differently? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.