Reimagining Ritual

Alessandra Rossi, Cairn (marker #1, #2, #3), Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe 2019. Photo Jessica Wyld (screen capture https://sculpturebythesea.com/gallery/)

By Rabbi Alon Meltzer

Ritual is infused in so much of what we do when trying to engage people across denominational and ideological spectrums. Whether it is Shabbat dinners, Passover seders or Jewish learning – all of these are ritual spaces that we play in. But how do we reimagine them to make them relevant for Jews in 2019.

When I made the pivot from being a traditional Pulpit Rabbi, to working in an institution, this question was key to making my decision. The synagogue is important no doubt (I still serve as a Rabbi of a small synagogue, Or Chadash in Bondi, Sydney); but can it really reach the masses needed to keep the fire of our people alive.

Reimagining ritual is imperative if we want to intersect what society sees as valuable with a deep and evocative Jewish tradition. Projects like the daily tanach study, Project 929, has been successful in reimagining Jewish learning and allowing people to access Jewish texts and see them in a relevant lens. In a similar vein Sefaria has been able to democratise text in a unique and powerful way, opening the concept of cloud sourcing and education technology to the treasure troves of Jewish texts spanning thousands of years.

One Table has been able to dip into people’s habits of Friday night dinners and social gatherings to create a broad community of hosts and guests and infuse it with deeper meaning through educational resources and mentoring. Zikaron Ba’Salon has taken the necessity of holocaust memorialisation and established new ways to commemorate the atrocities of yesteryear in a way that is relevant to 20 and 30 somethings.

Wherever we look we can see innovation and development on a large scale, reimaging Jewish ritual, and creating relevancy to the Jews of today.

But it is Reboot which stands out to me the most. Whether it is reimagining the ritual of a traditional Shabbat, or exploring the repentance process of Yom Kippur, engaging people across rituals of mourning, or perhaps most boldly their reimagining of the Succah, in their 2010 event Sukkah City.

Sitting in the antipodes, we face the same challenges as our northern brothers and sisters, yet being so far away, we are often unable to access some of the creativity and intuition of those who came before us. Reboot however has always been willing to share deeply, spreading the word of reimagination across the world, and we have reaped the benefits of such openness.

This is why we have borrowed their succah concept and tweaked it to make it deeply Australian. We have been fortunate to partner with Sculpture by the Sea, one of the world’s largest outdoor sculpture exhibitions, running annually and attracting half a million people, to create Succah by the Sea. We have an Artistic Director (William Feuerman from Office Feuerman) and a team of 6 emerging architecture firms and we are radically reimaging ritual, on one of the world’s biggest stages, as Reboot had done before us.

Established as a result of the Jewish people’s seemingly eternal wandering, the Succah forms the continuous ritual of engaging with society. By setting up residence in the public sphere – open to the world around it – the succah invites those within it to physically, mentally and spiritually face outwards, and embodies the interconnection between individuals and the wider community. The ritual of Succot directly wrestles with the challenges of the global citizen, raising questions about topics ranging from homelessness and displacement, to environmentalism, impermanence, the definition of perfection, and social isolation.

To explore ancient texts through a modern lens, to concretise ritual in a meaningful and relevant way, to deep dive into the biggest issues facing society and conceptualise them through hands on, practical and tactile engagements, is to radically reimagine what has gone before. As Rabbi Alan B. Lucas wrote in The Observant Life, “the succah has some very basic requirements, but beyond these rules its construction is left to one’s imagination and creativity.”

For those who annually mark the Festival of Succot – a festival of joy associated with hosting guests and festive meals – the Succah’s design or the environs in which is it located are not of primary concern, with many using kit-sets of plastic tubing and tarpaulins, dismantled and stored away after the seven day-ritual. The same could be said about our inability to engage in difficult discourse about issues fracturing modern society – environmentalism, homelessness, displacement, imperfection – all are challenges that seem to be met with complacency by the mainstream. Few rise to the occasion to find innovative and realistic solutions to the plight of humanity and the world around us. We have increasingly chosen the easy path, we have resorted to following the mundane, we briefly discuss an issue and swiftly dismantle it and store it away.

Succah by the Sea invites a larger project of reimagination, whereby society look outward to the challenges and issues before us, and facing them individually and together, leads to innovation, inspiration, and the elevation of the world around us.

As a father, rabbi, and sociologist, Jewish community is everything to Alon Meltzer. Currently he serves as Director of Programs at Shalom and Rabbi of Or Chadash Synagogue in Sydney, Australia.