What role does ritual play in passing down our traditions?

David Arnow Jewish

For millennia ritual practice was universal among Jews. Ritual passed from one generation to the next as reliably as children learned the language of their parents. Indeed, ritual was the language of Judaism. With modernity, sectors of the Jewish community began to view ritual selectively. In its 1885 Pittsburgh platform, the Reform Movement announced that “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its [ancient] national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”*

Reformers believed that Jewish ethics was worth passing down, but most of Jewish ritual was not. But what is Jewish ethics and how was it to be passed down? First, it turns out that Judaism’s moral laws are hard to differentiate from ethics in general. Second, it appears that the framework of ritual provides an irreplaceable means of inculcating the ethical values we hold most dear. Take the Passover Seder. Seder means ‘order,’ a key ingredient of all ritual. But the Seder’s goal is not ritual for its own sake. The Haggadah explicitly states the goal: “In every generation each individual should feel as if he or she had personally come out of Egypt.” It’s hard to imagine a better vehicle than the rituals of the Passover Seder for teaching the next generation to value freedom and social justice. And if you really want to extend the lesson, observe the rituals further — try not eating bread during the week of Passover and eating only from dishes that have never come into contact with leavened products. It’s not easy, but it creates an indelible impression on children.

Arnold Eisen, now Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, wrote a penetrating study on the role of ritual in the contemporary Jewish community. It happens to conclude with a discussion about the Passover Seder.

A Seder for all its adaptation to changing circumstances, promises (and often delivers) a measure of authenticity unavailable at the steakhouse. It constitutes a traditional framework that links Jews to a history which demands that life be serious. Stepping into the ritual constitutes a statement about identity, particularly when one knows that the Haggadah — like Jewish history — inevitably makes claims upon its Jewish performers. . . . Ritual has always offered comfort and reassurance as much as challenge and reproof. And, arguably, it offers many American Jews more than that.*

Raising children in a home and community where Jewish ritual is a natural part of life may not guarantee that they will pass their traditions down to another generation, but without ritual, the chances are slimmer.

Mary C. Boys Christian

Ritual, a value-oriented, interpersonal and repetitive behavior, is a fundamental dimension of human life. As a medium that expresses profound meanings and values, ritual forms persons in their communal and personal identity. Religious rituals are meant to lead persons into relationship with the sacred and to form community.

Significant differences exist in how ritual is enacted within Christianity. Some church traditions have a minimalist ritual style, giving emphasis to the free expression of congregants — Pentecostal churches, for example. On the other end of the spectrum are the more elaborately choreographed rituals of the liturgical churches that follow a formal structure, such as the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican traditions.

Ritual teaches in a tacit way, especially through the senses—gesture, posture, scent, spoken and sung word. Perhaps a personal example will illustrate. The parish to which I belong, Corpus Christi Church (Roman Catholic) on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has a number of services each Sunday, but the principal Mass is celebrated with great solemnity; there is a splendid choir, fulsome participation by congregants, and stately ritual. One of the most moving moments for me is the prelude to the Eucharistic Prayer in which the presider, the altar and then the congregation are blessed with incense (See Psalm 141:2: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you.”) After the sanctuary is filled with incense the altar server—an adolescent girl or boy—approaches the congregation. We stand, as the server bows to the congregation; in turn, we bow back. Then he or she incenses the congregation, after which we again bow to one another.

This is all done in silence, but the language of ritual speaks volumes about human dignity. In bowing to that young altar server, we are recognizing him or her as a person made in the image of the Divine; in exchanging mutual blessings, we stand together before God, the Mother and Father of us all.

Muhammad Shafiq Muslim

Ritual is a significant part of every faith. It is a medium for a personal and communal identity, behavior and relationship with God. The Qur’an urges Muslims to worship God, pay Zakat, fast in the month of Ramadan and go for Hajj when they have adequate resources. The Prophet called these rituals the “pillars of Islam.”* Today, observance of the five pillars is more emphasized than ever.

Ritual plays a greater role when an individual or a community is faced with political, social or economic issues, or even an individual or communal identity crisis. Soon after Colonialism, Muslims were faced with ruthless and corrupt Western-educated modern elites. Deprived of participation in the political, economic or social life of the community in their own homeland, many Muslims focused on practice of religious rituals at the family and community level. Having very little freedom elsewhere, the mosque became a center of religious expression and freedom very much like the African-American churches in America. With more focus on rituals, the Muslims differed on how exactly these rituals were to be performed. Like Christians and Jews, various schools of thought emerged among Muslims on this question.

Along with teaching the pillars of Islam, there is also more emphasis on children’s learning to read the Qur’an in Arabic for blessing. Many parents celebrate when their children learn to read the Qur’an. Children are also taught the daily worship in Arabic from the very beginning of their lives. The observance of the pillars of Islam becomes essential when children reach puberty, but parents make sure they learn and practice it while they are even younger.

Muslims in America are fearful of losing their family and communal identity. However, similar to Jews’ attending the Reform Synagogue, many prefer to attend the Islamic centers and send their children to learn the rituals. Muslim professionals with a broader view of Islam and its rituals built many of these centers, where most of the Imams hold advanced degrees. Many of the centers do not represent any specific ethnic group or school of thought, though other mosques in America do represent a majority ethnic group and follow its tradition or represent a specific school of thought. Like Judaism and Christianity, there are all sorts of mosques in America that are teaching rituals and passing down the tradition to the next generation.

Note: Translation of the Qur’anic verses and many of the Hadith translation with references were taken from; some translations of and references to the Hadith were taken from

3 responses to “What role does ritual play in passing down our traditions?”

  1. Guest says:

    From Allyson Szabo, via LinkedIn:

    I’m loving the questions!

    In answer, I think it
    depends on what you mean by “ritual.” For me, “ritual” is anything that’s
    repeated purposefully. Brushing my teeth, showering, praying at bedtime, are all
    examples of my rituals. Some of them are more spiritual than others, but I do
    *attempt* to do them all prayerfully. ;)

    I think that using the same or
    similar rituals or mythos throughout a year does help young people to learn the
    rites and rhythms of a specific belief system. For instance, even young children
    know that Christ’s birth is celebrated around Christmas, and that at Easter, he
    died, then rose again, and slightly older children will understand the ideas
    behind the flame of the Holy Spirit descending on Pentacost.

    On the
    other hand, rituals can become dull and boring if they’re too much the same. It
    can be a tricky line to balance on!

  2. Marie Devine says:

    Ritual helps us remember, or better yet keeps us from forgetting what God has said. Ritual must be a command or we get into false religion. Search “picture”, “image” and “Sabbath” in King James Version ( has many languages to read online.) God is His word and His word is God. If we avoid His commands, He is not our God. Exodus 31:13.

    Exodus 20 has the Ten Commandments which forbid making images or bowing down before them and also commands us to keep the ritual of the 7th day weekly memorial Sabbath of rest as a reminder of the creation by God where He sanctified the 7th day (Saturday).

    Leviticus 23 feast and Sabbath commands is followed by Leviticus 26 judgment for obedience or rejection. The rituals of Passover, Day of Atonement, and Feast of Ingathering etc. both keep us remembering there will be a gathering and also remember how God gathers and cleanses us through His word, His promises, and His presence each day and the blood of the Lamb of God. In addition, these rituals would have kept us close to the land so we would not get trapped in the glorified slavery we are in now which is leading us into extinction and bondage from kindergarten unto old age. Ritual is very important.

    For those who fear the killing of animals as commanded in the feast days, be reminded that they have no problem killing animals for the lust of their own tastebuds, but only in doing as God commanded. Jesus is our sin sacrifice, but the other offerings commanded of God are to celebrate before God. It is how God does a holy tailgate party.

  3. Guest says:

    From Minister William Clarke, via LinkedIn •

    Very key role. Especially as a link from the past to the future.FAMILY
    RITUAL: My family Christmas ritual is now found in my grand childrens’
    homes, too. Christmas stockings for everyone, even the adults — kids
    may open there’s first if can’t wait to share with aldults — OR we all
    open ours one person at a time — until all stockings are empty. Then
    it’s time for Christmas breakfast. After Breakfast the Nativity for
    either Luke or Matthew — a morning prayer – and then one present at a
    time so the rest of the crowd can “ooh and ahh” were appropriate every
    family member takes a turn as we go aroound the circle until all gifts
    are unwrapped.

    RITUAL AS A MEANS TO WORSHIP:Always liked the voicing of the Passover
    Haggada “When I was a slave in Egypt…” Many communion tables in
    Christian churches are inscribed with the words “Do This in Rembrembance of
    Me” — Remembrance at the Lord’s table is the same as the “I” of the
    Passover Haggada — making the past real and alive in the present.
    Often my communion message would remind us all of the 3 ways Christ is
    present at the table: 1)Pastor – the Saviour who died on the cross and
    rose from the grave; 2) the Livinng Lord who is with us daily and at the
    table in the Person of the Holy Spirit, 3) the reigning/risen Christ
    who will return at the end of time to take his “people home”. A
    traditonal interpretation bu a very powerful imagery.

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