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.
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.
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.