Body Language is what I like to call ritual practice. As a Protestant, I was a late-comer to ritual practice.
I grew up in the Methodist Church. When I was young, my Dad was the minister in the church we attended. I remember the sights and sounds and how much I liked sitting in services surrounded by them.
One sight in particular that imprinted itself is the little gothic arch-shaped board at the front that featured the hymn numbers for the day. The numbers on that board pointed to a rich sound experience, the hymns we would sing at three points during the service. There is something very powerful about a roomful of Methodists standing to sing those old and familiar tunes accompanied by an organ. As I participated in the experience, I became part of it.
The search begins
As I grew older, like so many young people, I searched for a different religious experience, but I wasn’t quite sure for what. I visited all kinds of services and read about various religions. I admired many things that I read or saw and experienced in the services of other denominations and religions. I enjoyed extended stays in some environments. For a while, I was Congregationalist — because my friend’s father was the minister of that church. It felt familiar and homey. I loved the splendor and color of Catholic services. Buddhist philosophy attracted me. For a while, I was Baptist.
Body language…a first step toward it
As I look back on it, what attracted me to the Baptist Church was really a sign of where I was headed. When I visited a Baptist Church for the first time, I liked that there were Bibles stored in racks in the pews. During the service, we took those books out of the racks, held them in our hands, and read from them. Of course, I loved many parts of the text, so familiar to me. It was the physical act, though, of taking out the book at a particular time and holding it and opening it that was most meaningful.
My most life-changing step toward a ritual practice
At a later time, I became interested in Judaism. Initially, it was an intellectual attraction. What I read worked for me, and I wanted to read more. It wasn’t until I was part of a Jewish community for several years, though, constantly seeking, reading, and experiencing, that I found the center point of my journey.
For several years, my experience and learning were in a Reform environment and an academic environment. I had a sense I was missing something but wasn’t sure what that something was. Then one day I visited a traditional synagogue where the weekly practice included taking scrolls out of the ark. A cascade of ritual activity and bodily movement accompanied the practice. I was overwhelmed with emotion, and tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t explain then exactly what it all meant to me, but I knew I wanted more of it. That morning was the first step of my journey into more traditional corners of Judaism.
Now I know that what so moved me was ritual engagement, Body Language. Through ritual practice, Body Language, Judaism offers a life-enhancing embodied conversation that points to transcendence and deeper meaning. This non-verbal body language, ritual, communicated meaning to me, from checking the numbers in the gothic arch-shaped sign and taking a hymnal, opening it, turning to a page, standing and singing beloved songs, to the Bibles in pews that I could anticipate picking up, opening, and holding at a particular time to read well-known passages once again.
Body language — a spread table of ritual practices
When I first glimpsed traditional Judaism, I felt as though I had come into an amazing and brilliant garden of ritual activity. I experienced it in ways I could have hardly imagined if I had just read a book of instructions. At every moment of a day, whether in a worship environment or engaged in daily activities, there are ways to move one’s body or eat that communicate meaning.
Often when people try to explain the meaning of a ritual or embodied experience, for example, sitting in the women’s section during synagogue services, it loses me. How is it possible to explain bodily experience with language? Sure, you can in part. But you can never really capture the fullness of an experience, the nuanced meaning. Completely lost is the specificity of individual experience since no person shares another’s bodily experience except in the most general ways. It is the intense individuality of the ritual experience that makes it so deeply meaningful.
How can one person explain the taste of matzah to another person? Each matzah tastes different not only because of where and how it was made but because of the moment and surroundings in which it is eaten. The experience is specific to the person eating it as they are in that moment and in all their prior moments.
Eating matzah has a general meaning brought to it through the education and liturgy common to all who share in a seder, a Passover meal. It points to a shared communal and historical experience. But it also has a very powerful and specific meaning to each person at the celebration.
Rituals at work
Rituals elevate mundane activities and give them meaning. They are both cultural and personal expressions. They teach us about ourselves and our place in the world. At the same time, they point to something beyond themselves: in the context of religion, they point to transcendence. Rituals do this not only in the general framework of what religion teaches but in very specific and personal ways for a person in a specific place and time.
As structured experience, rituals elevate mundane activities like eating. They do this without words, which can educate and shape a person but also distract. I remember many occasions when a sermon included concepts that either irritated or alienated me — or included information that I wanted to be sure to check later. In those cases, I was more involved with trying to remember what it was that I wanted to check than with the embodied experience I might have had.
At one seder I attended, our host asked us to maintain silence after hand-washing and for a few moments while tasting the matzah. How powerful this wordless experience was, both in its general sense in the context of a seder and its deeply personal sense communicated through the experience.
Contrary to popular evaluations of ritual as mindless repetition, I believe ritual is an aid to mindfulness and conscious choice. Food-centered rituals heighten and focus my awareness. They invite me to experience what I am eating more fully and to experience and express gratitude when I am satisfied. Ritual is an embodied and nuanced conversation with all that is, with ourselves, our world, and Transcendence.