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.
As I grew older, like so many young people, I was searching, 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 religious 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 awhile, I was Baptist.
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 and that during the service, we took those books out of the racks and held them in our hands and read from them. Of course I loved many parts of the text, so familiar to me, but it was the physical act of taking out the book at a particular time and holding it and opening it that was most meaningful.
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 had been part of a Jewish community for several years, though, and constantly seeking and reading and experiencing as I was in that community, that I found the center point of my journey.
For several years, my experience and my learning were conducted in a Reform environment – and in 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 scrolls were taken out of the ark with a cascade of ritual activity and bodily movement. I was overwhelmed with emotion, and tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t have put into words then exactly what that experience meant to me, but I knew I wanted more of it. That morning was the first step of my journey into the traditional corners of Judaism.
Now I know that what so moved me was ritual engagement: I call it “body language.” Judaism is a life filled with ritual activity, life enhancing movements that point to transcendence and deeper meaning. It was always non-verbal body language, ritual, that 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.
When I first glimpsed traditional Judaism, I felt as though I had come into an amazing and brilliant garden of ritual activity that spoke to me in ways and with a power I could have hardly imagined before I experienced it. At every moment of a day, whether in a worship environment or engaged in daily activities, there are ways to place or move one’s body — or to eat! — that communicate meaning. Even sitting in an Orthodox women’s section, an experience that so many non-traditional women view negatively, offered me opportunities for joy and religious growth. The physical experience of my body in that space and in that time communicated to me in ways that nothing else could have.
I also notice that when people try to explain the meaning of a ritual or particular body language, for example, sitting in the women’s section during synagogue services, it loses me. How is it possible to communicate anything but the most general concepts in language? Completely lost is the specificity of individual experience since no person shares another person’s bodily experience except in the most general ways. It is the intense individuality of the ritual experience that can make it so deeply meaningful.
How can you explain the taste of a 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 and because of the person eating it as they are in that moment and in all their prior moments. It tastes different because of the words that are spoken at the time of eating and because of the level of awareness.
Eating matzah may have a general meaning brought to it through the education and liturgy common to all who share in a seder, a Passover meal, but it can also have a very powerful and specific meaning to each person at the celebration.
Rituals exalt mundane activities and give them meaning. They point to something beyond themselves: in the context of religion, they point to transcendence. Rituals do this not only within the general framework of what a religion teaches but in very specific and personal ways for the person in the moment.
As structured experience, rituals lift mundane activities like eating. They do this without words, which can educate and shape a person but can also distract one and disturb religious experience. 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 experience I might have been having.
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 conscious choices. Applied to my food choices, ritual heightens and focuses my awareness. It invites me to experience what I am eating more fully and to experience and express gratitude when I am satisfied.